The way we figure it, there are two main schools of musical improvisation. Being the pragmatists that we are, The Spin admires improvisers who hew to structure while enlarging the scope of that framework. We also like the way other improvisers subtly imply structure or, at times, ignore it. Since we were raised on rock 'n' roll, we value forward motion as first principle, and that velocity was evident throughout guitarists William Tyler and Peter Walker's Friday night performances in Third Man Records' Blue Room. Both musicians took the solo-guitar aesthetic to new places, and the tension between structure and freedom made their sets fascinating examples of an all-American primitivism that pioneering guitarist and Takoma Records founder John Fahey likely would have found bracing.
As a cool mist enveloped downtown Nashville, we settled in to catch Tyler, who has made his reputation as a composer, guitarist, bandleader and sideman. Playing to a house full of enthusiastic fans, Tyler began his half-hour set with "We Can't Go Home Again," a track from his 2013 full-length, Impossible Truth. We've been lucky enough to see Tyler perform this song several times, but it could be that opening for Walker energized Tyler to play it with a vigor — a violence, even — that we hadn't witnessed before. Tyler composes his music along the lines of late-'60s and early-'70s singer-songwriter music, but he abstracts its components. "We Can't Go Home Again" began with something akin to song structure, and moved into a section in which Tyler played in 4/4 time with a triplet feel — a layering of rhythms that is characteristic of his work. Chords took over from melodies, and Tyler pushed the beat while maintaining a steady flow of fingerpicked notes.
This canny use of structure and non-structure continued during "Terrace of the Leper King," which reminded The Spin of the raga influences '60s guitarists often employed. Tyler mentioned Carl Jung in his introduction to "Missionary Ridge," and switched to electric guitar for a new song, "Going Clear." He dedicated another new song to the recent troubling events at Mississippi's Graceland Too, where the proprietor of an eccentric Elvis Presley shrine died after shooting an intruder. "It's just a very weird Southern story," Tyler explained, and you could say the same thing about his compositions.
Walker began his set by playing a series of improvisations in various keys. A tall, gentle-looking man who is nonetheless an imposing figure, Walker played what amounted to exercises with an abandon that brought to light their somewhat predictable anti-structures. A Boston-born guitarist who made a couple of albums for the Vanguard label in the late '60s, Walker is also a skilled flamenco guitar player as well as a raga-influenced improviser who deftly moves between single-note flurries and chordal passages. Looking out at the audience as he played — The Spin particularly got off on the way he coaxed biting lines from his Gibson Hummingbird steel-string guitar — Walker exuded bonhomie even as his astringent approach demonstrated how a skilled improviser can turn the simplest materials into compelling music.
As Walker said, "Different modes have such different flavors," and there was something to discover, and to savor, as he moved from key to key. As did Tyler, Walker sometimes implied a triplet feel against a 4/4 ground beat, but Walker's approach is even more abstract than Tyler's. His tangle of notes and chords stayed mostly within the familiar triads of Western music, though Walker's raga training — he studied at Ravi Shankar's raga school in California in the '60s — came through in his curdled melodic approach. His modal explorations aggregated notes into patterns that became ever more complex, and Walker's furious attack would be the envy of many a rock 'n' roller.
Switching to a piano that was specially tuned to the key of C, Walker played the white keys in the house that The White Stripes built. He performed a song by American folk singer Judy Mayhan, who recorded a couple of interesting albums in the early '70s — cut at Alabama's Muscle Shoals Sound, her 1970 Moments full-length sports covers of songs by Tom T. Hall and Jimmy Webb, while 1971's Judy Mayhan features her interpretations of tunes by Fred Neil, Lowell George and Dory Previn. Playing those white keys with flourish, Walker sang a song written by another folk performer, the Scottish-born Raul Danks, who cut a 1973 album for Fahey's Takoma label. Switching back to guitar, Walker performed two amazing songs from his recently issued 1970 full-length, Has Anybody Seen Our Freedoms?, that exemplified his prowess. Freedoms is a masterpiece of implicit structure, and Walker respected that structure, which seemed to give him the kind of freedom that inspires improvisers to do their best work.
When people think Louisville, they might think of touchstones ranging from Muhammad Ali to My Morning Jacket and sweet Kentucky bourbon. Certainly at least two of those things were represented at Forecastle Festival last weekend.
First, we caught Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan's latest project, the Nashville-affiliated Spanish Gold, at its mid-Saturday main-stage set and spotted MMJ singer Jim James in a VIP cocktail lounge hours later. Second, the festival boasted a Bourbon Lodge, where for a fee you could sample sweet vice from across the Bluegrass State. For The Spin, though, when we think Louisville, we think Slint. The post-rock hometown heroes — revered by nerds like us worldwide as essentially punk rock's Pink Floyd — called it quits in 1992, and have reunited for brief tours and one-offs a couple times since. Saturday night, the band treated Forecastlers to one of only a few hometown shows they've done in more than 20 years. For many, it was a pinch-self moment of undivided-attention-inspiring reverence (and definitely a life experience we're happy to finally cross off our bucket list); for some, it was utterly off-putting and confounding. But for stoned newcomers to the band, it was mind-blowing. The 11-song set included the band's landmark long-player Spiderland performed in its entirety (though not in order, to retain an element of surprise). The band played those slow-building, sludgy, angular, austere songs with meditative, shoegazing intensity. But the performance element was all in the sound, which was just as we'd hoped: hypnotic, brooding, foreboding and at times terrifying, especially coming off a side stage situated directly under an interstate overpass as the sky turned dark.
The heady set flew in the face of the casual-music-fan festivalgoer mentality, where people size up bands like buffet items, sample and move on. "I don't know if we can compete with that," Slint's Brian McMahan sheepishly quipped as the sounds of Jack White opening with "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" wafted overhead. As it turns out, though, they could compete, with the comment inspiring chants from the crowd — who knew they were at a festival, but recognized this particular performance was a bit of a secret handshake.
Jack White, on the other hand, was as ever the showman, whipping his hair back and forth and lunging frantically across the stage playing guitar solos as if he were taming a lion. White's set at Forecastle was a different animal than his legendary marathon Bonnaroo show last month. Though White did manage to blow past the 11 p.m. curfew, this was a leaner, more primal set, with less between- and mid-song banter and more hits — "Dead Leaves" and "Fell in Love With a Girl" were among the White Stripes staples in the set this time. In Bluegrass State spirit, White also tossed in covers of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and Hank Williams' "You Know That I Know." If White had a disastrous Kanye set to make up for at Bonnaroo, at Forecastle he had an epic-party OutKast set to live up to.
The ATLiens arrived Friday night. At this point, Andre 3000 and Big Boi are more than three months into their long-anticipated reunion tour, and they've got this thing down to a science. From the show flickering to life with the duo's Stankonia backdrop to the closing notes of "The Whole World" — which finally gave us the OutKast side of that tune, after seeing Killer Mike destroy it at Bonnaroo last year — everything was pitch-perfect. As well it should be, seeing as how 'Kast is dropping the same 25-song hit parade on festivals across the globe. If you're one of the lucky jerks who get to see OutKast at multiple festivals, there won't be much surprise in their set here. But really, would you want it any different? Aside from some secret desires to hear more Speakerboxxx album cuts, we relished the opportunity to have our faces blasted off by hits like "Rosa Parks," "SpottieOttieDopaliscious" and, of course, "Hey Ya!" — the closest thing millennials have to a generation-defining pop song (and we'll go to the mat for that). Andre 3000 is a damn dynamo, though he did say some real inscrutable shit. (At one point he shouted, "I thought Kentucky only had horses and bitches," which we're still trying to figure out.) But it wasn't just the Andre show. Big Boi can rap his ass off, as he's shown on the handful of solo records that preceded the reunion. And 'Kast's band is about as on point as a backing band for a rap group can get without straight-up being The Roots.
If OutKast had their show finely tuned at this point, the Forecastle bill's other big 2014 reunion circuit get — The Replacements — was anything but. Disastrous Mats shows are the stuff of rock legend, and Sunday evening's hot mess courtesy of the self-proclaimed "Replacements tribute band" (as frontman Paul Westerberg lovingly called the version of the band on stage, which featured none other than Green Day dude Billie Joe Armstrong on auxiliary rhythm guitar) was as much a series of train wrecks as it was an onslaught of hits and fan favorites. Maybe it was karmic payback for Westerberg ribbing the crowd by name-checking Lexington in his stage banter. Maybe it was the single show-day rehearsal since the band's last live appearance, more than two months ago. Or maybe it's just that even this version of the band is The Replacements, and fucking up is what The Replacements do best. Regardless, let's take stock. Hilarity first ensued when Armstrong struck a wrong chord during a mid-song pause, derailing set-list nugget "Nowhere Is My Home." The version of "Color Me Impressed" that followed was, though spirited, not exactly impressive. The following version of the more aptly titled "White and Lazy" featured Westerberg crawling on his hands and knees while playing blues harmonica. Westerberg wasn't a happy camper, even if it looked like he was halfway enjoying the debacle. "We never play this song and you'll soon find out why," he joked before what ended up being a decently competent version of "Message to the Boys."
"Little Richard would be embarrassed by that shit," Westerberg said, ripping a Little Richard button off his vest after a ramshackle cover of Chuck Berry's "Maybellene." A song or two later, he impulsively smashed his guitar in a show of rock 'n' roll frustration. Nevertheless, the sloppiness didn't keep classics like "Kiss Me on the Bus," "I Will Dare," "Left of the Dial," "Alex Chilton" and "Bastards of Young" from rallying the crowd in moments of fist-pumping transcendence.
To close out our Forecastle 2014 adventure, we took in our second Beck show in less than a week. (Hey, it's a good life!) Luckily, for variety's sake, this time around we got the festival-ready, frontloaded-with-hits party set the alt-indie renaissance man's been touring lately. Until hitting the one-man harmonica-vocals-only dirge "One Foot in the Grave" 10 songs into the set, it was all Beck bangers (such a thing?) like "Devil's Haircut," "The New Pollution," a call-and-response-milking romp through "Loser," a short cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and "Novacane." With the singer-sometimes-rapper — not to mention his top-notch alt-funk-on-steroids backing band — hamming it up in front of a video screen flashing vivid psychedelics, the set succeeded in keeping the party going, even if waning energy is a hallmark of any Sunday-night festival crowd. People stayed attentive during more songwriter-y Morning Phase cuts like "Blue Moon" and "Waking Light" and proceeded to dance their asses off to a last-hurrah encore trio of "Sexx Laws," "Debra" and "Where It's At."
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