Make no mistake: presenting one of the most unique, illogical and inexplicably compelling rock albums ever made was no mean feat. Eno himself never attempted its live performance.
This review presumes familiarity with the source material. If you are new to th’ fold, hie thee at once to the closest (or most convenient) purveyor of sonic treasures, open sufficiently wide thy wallet, and plug, posthaste, this most unfortunate of lacunae in your musical preparation.
WNYC Radio engineer, guitarist and et ceterist Rob Christiansen assembled a top-flight core band, comprising:
Brett Lefferts on keys…
Glenn Mohre on six more strings…
Roger Paul Mason (bass) and Vince Fairchild (keys):
The visually way-in-the-back, but sonically all-encompassing Bill Bowen on drums…
Ian Peksa on marching and percussives:
And the redoubtable, resplendent and bi-coastal Trouble Dolls on backing vocals, incidental percussion and front-line glam(our):
Christiansen could have stopped there, and a fine show would have been inevitable. But he, together with producer Dan Efram opted to give us so much more, assembling an inventive roster of guest singers/musicians:
- Bad Seed, Grinderman-man and Vanity Settee Jim Sclavunos;
- Jim Thirlwell (Foetus, Wiseblood, Steroid Maximus, Manorexia, &c.)
- Vernon Reid (Living Colour, Ronald Shannon Jackson/Decoding Society, Black Rock Coalition, lots lots more)
- Paul Duncan (Warm Ghost)
- Bryan Scary (Shredding Tears)
- Dominic Cipolla (Phantom Family Halo)
- Siobhan Duffy (The Gunga Din, Angels of Light, God Is My Co-Pilot)
- Travis Morrison (Dismemberment Plan)
- Rachel Lears (Os Postiços, The Mystery Keys)
- Sohrab Habibion (Obits, Edsel)
The show touched down with all cylinders firing — Paul Duncan and Bryan Scary captured and projected Needles in the Camel’s Eye‘s abstract urgency, creating a sound that was bigger than the both of ’em:
Next, Trouble Doll Cheri Leone and Dominic Cipolla carried the crowd through Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch, an odd historical-fiction melodrama centering around real-life ostensible-pyrokineticist A. W. Underwood:
Getting the next song right was particularly important.
Robert Fripp’s legendary Baby’s on Fire solo, an incendiary assault that beats the listener’s mind and body into submission for three-fifths of the song’s duration, has rightfully earned pride of place in the pantheon of rock guitar expression. Three of the greatest minutes of anything ever caught on tape. Finding a suitable soloist would be no easy task.
In walked Vernon Reid, whose unique right hand position makes it look like he is not so much wielding his axe as clutching a machine gun. The visual metaphor was apt, as Reid brought the fire(power) to his unrelenting solo for the better (and best) part of Baby’s on Fire:
Pairing Reid’s machine gun etiquette with Siobhan Duffy’s chanteuse stylings was just the sort of counterintuitive coupling that Eno himself would have relished:
Cheri Leone returned to the stage, adding new-millenial nuance to the distraught ’50s nostalgia of Cindy Tells Me…
… while the other Trouble Dolls kept the crowd swaying:
Next, Paul Duncan lurched through the discordant angst of Driving Me Backwards:
On Some Faraway Beach was then sung (more or less) by Travis Morrison:
Suddenly, the stage appeared to have been beset upon by a seven-foot-tall lumberjack in a surprisingly dapper pink suit. ’twas, in fact, Jim Sclavunos, who careened (with equal parts sonic and sartorial aplomb) through the terrifying tale of Blank Frank, by turns howling and hebephrenic:
Dead Finks Don’t Talk brought Siobhan Duffy and Travis Morrison back to the fore.
Ms. Duffy nicely captured the sly coyness of Eno’s original oration. Mr. Morrison had the devil-may-care-bopping-in-place-with-one-hand-in-pocket-and-t’other-grasping-a-brew move down pat, although one wishes he had spent a little more time learning the lyrics, centering his pitch and the like…
Next came one of the musical high-points of the evening, viz., a short, sweet, swirling, squelchy, sprawling, spiraling soundscape by Jim Thirlwell, serving as the brain-cleaning segue from Dead Finks Don’t Talk into Some of Them Are Old. It was impossible to divine, from my angle, from what diminutive demon box he called forth these raging spirits:
Following a lovely, lilting flute-and-recorder lead-in, Rachel Lears and Sohrab Habibion harmonized sincerely through Some of Them Are Old…
… accompanied by a three-way slide-guitar interlude:
The album drew to a close in suitably grand fashion, with the band slowly building on the opening riff of Here Come the Warm Jets while a two-man processional snaked slowly through the rapt audience and joined the rest of the band onstage:
The sound, now a twenty-eight string extravaganza, continued building:
The song reached its culmination as the Trouble Dolls sang the admittedly nonsensical, albeit strangely moving, lyrics… the heart soared, while the head scratched itself:
Finally, Messrs. Mohre and Peksa returned to the primordial sea from which their procession began:
The album completed, the band soldiered on through four dazzling encores.
First up, Bryan Scary returned to tell the tawdry, under-told tale of The Seven Deadly Finns.
This bawdy beast sits at the midpoint of an aesthetic arc drawn between the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R. and the Damned’s “1 of the 2.” Bursting with raw punk energy and sung with a lecherous sneer, it prefigured British punk by a good two years. Brimming with sexual double-entendres and cobbling together everything from Japanese erotic torture references to puns on the name of the, er, progenitor, of Systems Theory, it balances (however metastably) erotica with esoterica. Never released on any album, it remains one of Eno’s lesser-known masterpieces.
The altitudinous and grandiloquent Jim Sclavunos returned for a jaunty regaling of Backwater:
John Schaefer and Vernon Reid returned to the stage, for a rousing and raging version of Third Uncle, beginning with a stratospheric multi-guitar rave-up, punctuated by the torrent that was Jim Sclavunos’ manic and propulsive timbales (made possible, apparently, by virtue of his inspired, impromptu, mid-rehearsal purchase of said drums).
Schaefer’s didactic delivery made for a subtle but nice shift from Eno’s original detached recitation. Having listened to the man through the radio box for about thirty (!) years, and being used to his calmly authoritative broadcasting demeanor, it was particularly gratifying to see him command as cacophonous a stage as this…
For the dramatic conclusion, Dominic Cipolla and Cheri Leone re-possessed the stage for The Jezebel Spirit, the right funky exorcism rite that concluded Side One of Eno/Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts album (Remember albums? Remember sides?)
Armed with only his bible, some dangling religious tchotchkes and a bullhorn, Cipolla successfully called Jesus “Out… Out…” and expelled the Jezebel spirit that dwelled deep within Cheri…
… or did he?!?!?
And thusly, the evening ended.
The core group did a heroic job throughout, successfully channeling the many moods of this protean production.
They, and the guest singers and musicians put on a blazing show that successfully captured the anarchy that first forced its way into unsuspecting ears nearly forty years ago. The audience made their pleasure known:
The bottom line: You should have been there.
With any luck, Messrs. C and E will be bringing this show to your town in time for this grand album’s proper anniversary………………….