April 25-30, 2011 Texas
Another wonderful trip with family, guns and music. What could be better?
First out to West-ish Texas to blow cans, buckets and pumpkins to smithereens with large amount of firepower. Yes, it is possible to vote progressive AND shoot things. Just as it is possible to vote conservative and support Planned Parenthood. Both of these happen more often than you would suspect, even here in the Wild West of the Tejas Territories.
Artistes with Guns (myself and Phillip Schalekamp)
damn big, gigantic thing
Then I drove up to Austin to rehearse with Pat for our first TU shows in Texas. Joining us as special guest was Chrysta Bell. Pat has been going on about Chrysta for ages. (“We HAVE to do something with her!”) He had worked with her in a few contexts including some kind of performances connecting to her work with David Lynch. He thought she would be a perfect TU compadre.
He was right.
Prior to the rehearsals we had a preliminary discussions about what material to tackle with Chrysta. We had only two and half days once we met up. This would included gear sort-out time, along with rehearsal and new material excavations for Pat and me.
We wanted to dip into Chrysta’s material and bring her into ours. Eventually we narrowed it down to four of her tracks and then began discussing whether she could sing on some of our instrumental stuff as well as do a King Crimson tune or two.
Pat suggested we try “Starless." Chrysta loved the idea. I, as usual, felt a bit dubious about doing Crimson material. I gave Eddie Jobson a fair bit of grief in terms of doing Crimson material with UKZ and the UZ project. I was involved with King Crimson for 10 years and have a special bond with some of the older material that goes back decades. I feel if it can’t have the impact of an authentic KC delivery, then it's better to not touch it. My attitude has usually been, "Screw it – just write some new material. Why present a shadow of the real wine?"
However, I am in favor of taking a completely different angle on a piece. Take the essence of it and re-spin it into something else. Or, even take the form of it and blend it with something of your own and see where it leads you. Just going onstage and doing a “rendition” of a King Crimson track feels a bit sacrilegious to me.
I’m not saying that anyone else (within the band or not) should think and operate in this same way. I’m just saying this is how I feel and must honor that. It is true that I have participated in a few KC “memory lane” moments. I fought against them tooth and claw, even though professionalism some times does require you to stretch your moral Cadillac. And, in truth, these performances were pretty good and even contained some kind of spirit of KC despite my own reservations.
The first was the UKZ version of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two." I resisted this enormously. But I felt as a pro that we should at least give it a go since we were in a big-ass rehearsal studio in LA and everyone had learned their parts. And, I had also fallen in love with Marco Minnemann’s and Alex Machacek’s playing. I don’t just mean that the notes were delivered professionally. I mean there was a “wild hair" spirit of the piece oozing out with its crazy dichotomy of “The Terror of the Universe Exploding” crossed with “The Joy of Children Playing with Each Other with No Concern of the Moment Just Passed or the Moment Not Yet Come.”
Additionally, the notes were played very well.
(Warning, Big Muso Moment: As an amusing aside, I loved hearing Alex – who’s harmonic languages probably surpasses all the musicians I know, combined – whinge and cringe about the silly way the tritones in the guitar part were put together. All I could say was “That’s how it goes. Just play it and see what happens.”)
So, I had to concede that this was good and went for it. We played "Larks'" in NYC and Japan. It was good. It wasn’t King Crimson. But it was something.
Another one of my post-KC Crimson moments was at a Russian gig in Moscow with KTU and Adrian and Tony and Pat. I think we did "Larks’ Two," as well. It was okay. Not earth-shattering but decent. I mean, I feel like kind of dick saying "no" to the experience of playing next to Tony Levin doing a Crimson classic. It is true that being onstage with Tony’s presence and power, plus a KC tune...well, it’s pretty, fricking great. But…it’s not the same beast as being onstage with Tony and Robert and Adrian and Bruford and Pat as KING CRIMSON. Walking out into that terrifying bath of sound and delivering the music like messengers with little wings on our ankles to open ears hovering over our strings and drum heads. It’s not remotely the same state/level/dimension/realm/universe.
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Then there is the other strategy: take a tune that you love and distill it down to its core/essence and rebuild it in the cloth of your own voice. Rework the parts to fit your own take and angle, just like we would in an actual King Crimson rehearsal (KC would just go ahead and write a new Larks’ that is more relevant to the current players and current moment in time). But a group not actually being KC isn’t going out onstage as Crimson. So screw representing the original manifestation. Use the materials at hand to make something new, but with the essence of the original, if you choose.
This led Pat and me to our version of “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Now, our version doesn’t really differ that much from the original. Except that we took the angle of “Hey let’s just do what we like with it and see where it goes.” We knew we could really play the tricky bits in the middle section. And, there isn’t really anyone else who can quite do that. The KC’s I had been in couldn’t do it (though Fripp and Adrian and I did a very silly and irreverent space-lounge-jazz version with ProjeKCt two. Which is what I’m talking about). But since Pat and I could do the tricky bits, we knew we had to.
Then we started learning the rest of the tune, messing around with changing the keys or mixing up the riffs. Then we came to the verses and hit a brick wall. What should we do with the verses? We can’t sing them, or shout them. That would be kind of lame. (Though not at lame as Kanye West’s sample of the track – stinky, dog poo, Kanye! And, my pal Matt Chamberlain even played on one of your albums, so I know you had some taste at some point!) Then Pat had the idea of using sampled voices. He pulled out some Japanese woman screeching and we liked it. Then he took the recent-at-the-time audio of the youtube ranter who was yelling at everyone for making fun of Britney Spears (“Leave Britney Alone!”) A defense of Britney inside a King Crimson classic – that is something I can stand behind.
But the final clincher was when we found an audio clip of Christopher Walken tearing someone a new asshole and yelling about their grandmother.
Now we were set. Pat had brought his electronic realm into the tracks and I brought my chops (distilling down the guitar and bass parts to work across my instrument) and we both bought our sense of arrangement into a version that felt authentic and vital. The final tweak was tagging on a piece of “Starless and Bible Black” at the end of “Schizoid.” While the first tune was fading away I would bring in the big, slow and heavy riff from the second piece. Pat would go drum-crazy and we finished up the final round by adding a sample of Kimmo’s accordion mayhem over the top.
That’s what I call transmogrification.
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So, it was to my surprise and delight that bringing Chrysta into these two pieces elevated this re-imaging to an even higher level. For one, she sang “Schizoid” like a banshee tied to a tree on a Scottish cliff. Then we added the song part of "Starless" which she delivered with wonderfully refreshing emotional impact. Something about John Wetton’s original vocal tracks from the 1970’s have a kind of desperation inside them that is sometimes hard for me to digest in 2011. Hearing Chrysta transform each molecule of Sorrow into a molecule of Joy was watching alchemy at work. I must say that I was moved.
Chrysta was up for anything Pat and I threw at her. “Improvise something over this," “sit out here, but come in here," “try singing this Stickmen tune," “let's do some of your tunes," “Made up something to go here." She was in. Which isn’t always the case with singers. Actually, it’s pretty rare. She lacks a kind of preciousness about her voice that was refreshing to interface with.
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We worked up a few tunes of hers and had her collaborator Dutch Rail sit in for those tunes on keyboards. Dutch, also, took on the thankless task of videoing these shows. Very challenging to try to capture what we do in the visual domain with no budget at all! Dutch and Chrysta have a band called Black Book Angel.
Then our final tweak on the segment of the show with Chrysta was adding in a tune called “Angel” that she co-wrote with David Lynch. When she first played it for us I had no idea how we could pull it off. It was crazy slow and spacious. And it had that twangy, 1950s torch singer vibe you associate with Lynch. But, damn, if we didn’t find our way of doing it. Poor little me had the hardest time remembering the chord changes in rehearsal. They were stupidly simple when it came down to it, but my little brain just seemed to be in mutiny mode. Eventually I found my way.
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April 28, 2011 – Austin, Texas – One World Theater
Our first show in Austin was spectacular, in my opinion. In large part due to the venue, One World Theater. This is one of a handful of places I have been in that are real listening rooms. Two others that come to mind are The Triple Door, here in Seattle, and The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. All are small enough to be genuinely intimate, and all have either no proscenium to the stage or very wide stages. This makes the physical connection between musician and audience tangible.
The biggest question on our minds all day: what to wear! This was so refreshing after years of musical concerns on a show day. Chrysta was going to be a spectacle coming out on stage with her hair done up, big heels and long Oriental gown in black with yellow patterns on it. Pat and had to step up to the plate as well. For Pat and me the choices have been fairly simple: Black or white. And then for me: to kilt or not.
Oh dear...what to do?
Eventually we decided on black for Austin, no kilt, and white for Dallas where Chrysta would be taking a different approach. It was surprisingly fun to take a higher concern for the presentation of the performance than usual.
The Austin show was pulled off with such grace and elegance. Considering it was our first show together I felt like we had invisible help. One high point of the show was the Chrysta/Lynch tune “Angel," which filled the room with its space and emotional width. The notes just rang out and rang out. Chrysta poured her voice out and it ran down on everyone. A song with Sorrow in it, again, transformed into Joy.
The other high point for me was the Starless/Schizoid/Starless reprise segment. 12 minutes of pretty pure goodness, I have to say. The song part of Starless began and the hush in the room after the initial rush of excitement was wonderful to hear. For me this is the sound of ears soaking up the sound. How big artists do it, who play to a stadium crowd with all the noise the audience is constantly generating, is baffling to me. I thrive on hearing the audience listen.
After the Starless song part completed, we kicked into Schizoid. In short, our singer delivered as did our rhythm section. Then into the Starless slow riff with crazy drums. We added a small little touch that made the whole night for me: Chrysta played guitar. She did her version of Fripp’s guitar part. Wonderfully strange, sexy and seductive. A ballsy thing to attempt and pull off. And, she did. How fun was it for me to be onstage rocking back and forth together with these two parts intertwined in 13/8 while drummer-boy tries to throw us off? Do I really need to answer that question?
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April 29, 2011
Next day was a day off in Austin. Hung out with Chrysta and her mother. Discovered they lived across the street from my high school, where she also went to high school(???!!!) And, her mom used to own a recording studio that one of my oldest musician buddies, Chris Lieck, bought from her. It rarely even fazes me these days when strange connections like this happen. It seems to just be part of the fabric of the universe.
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April 30, 2011 – Dallas, Texas – Granada Theater
It was a very different kind of venue here at the Granada Theater. A bigger and older theater with rock-and-roll dressing rooms and a worn stage surface that has seen lots and lots of shows. Plus, a rock-and-roll sound system.
Our setup time was miraculously smooth and quick, mostly due to the amazing staff: very pro folks who were genuinely helpful. This is not usually the norm. Many technicians either don’t know how to be truly useful, either offering the wrong help at the wrong help time or disappearing when you need them most. The Granada and One World Theater set new standards for high-class, pro staff.
The opening act Spivey, was hilarious and power-packed with energy. Then we went on. I think we were good. Certainly our white outfits worked. Pat looks very classy in his white suit, and I feel so fricking clean, both inside and out, wearing white. I left the stage when Pat began “Scarlet’s Wheel,” the Stickmen tune that Crystal first joins us for. Pat was whirring away with samples and drumkit and I had to piss. So…I did what anyone should do: I went for a piss! Pat can cover for me. (He doesn’t like it when I leave him alone onstage, I know. But it so fun to finally get to hear what he is doing from the sidelines!) I grabbed Chrysta and we went out together. It is wonderful witnessing the fun shock on everyone’s face seeing this buxom chanteuse walk out into our prog-rock picture frame.
We nailed “Scarlet’s Wheel” tonight. (I had, in Austin, screwed up some of the chords changes. Doh! Yes, it does happen.) Then we did “Angel." Dutch joined us for two more tracks and we did a version of "Optikus," the KTU tune. Chrysta wailed and improv’d while Pat and I grooved.
Minor, pseudo-encore break followed by the Starless/Schizoic extravaganza. Very well done tonight as you can imagine having one night under our belt.
All in all, a great adventure and we all look forward to more.
Dallas - "Can"
Austin - "The Fifth Spin of the Sun"