Hot Tracks!!!, 8/18
Music writing like the music business has changed so dramatically in the past decade that it's foolish to make early generalizations. I don't think it's premature to say though that what drives many bloggers is access. From the somewhat exasperated attitudes of the promoters, door guys, and record store owners I encounter it seems obvious that the blogger class, if resigned to not being compensated directly for their work, believes passionately that they should never have to pay to get into anything.
This attitude concerns me a bit and I try to place myself above it. If all the really great music writers can get into anything, then who is left to write about all the cool and worthwhile shows that anybody can get in to? I wonder. Every now and then, though, as a direct consequence of doing my little writing thing I get to experience something special that makes me feel all warm with importance. Importance, and mooched beers.
Last week I got to go to Hot Tracks!!! for a private event that was a real privilege. The talented arrangers and improvisers of the J. Wesley Haynes Trio were recording their album-length interpretation of Kid A, live to tape and video. In a single unbroken take! Getting to see the studio itself was a treat for a close follower of Austin music. Rising local star Danny Malone is a co-owner and some choice CD's have been born there (The Gary's boss-sounding Logan, for example). It's a cozy and deliberately old-fashioned space with a reel-to-reel machine and a relaxing exposed-brick, lamplit ambiance. I may sound ridiculous claiming I can hear the difference it makes when musicians record all together, at once, in a room as opposed to part by part, over the course of many weeks and with many of the musicians never making eye contact with one another. But I can. I'm not kidding. I see too many local bands as it is who play live like they are totally unfamiliar with one another and their individual parts.
Not so much Wesley Haynes (Rhodes), Willy Jones (string bass), and Matthew Shepherd (drums), whose trio playing is dominated by sympathetic, spare cooperation. Each player leaves something out for someone else in the team to pick up. Good improvisational music requires risk-taking in addition to disciplined groove -- when I first encountered these guys live I observed that as they tied on multiple sets through the course of a long evening, they got stronger, slipperier, and more hypnotic as they progressed. As they got looser, they got odder and rougher in the best senses. Seeing them play their Radiohead tribute in the studio was a different beast. Very contained, they kept solos to a minimum and concentrated on presenting their own arrangement interpretations of some most distinctive and difficult themes.
I'm pleased to have an opportunity here where I can't help but discuss Radiohead. They're the elephant in the room when it comes to discussing modern guitar bands. It's hard to name a big-dreaming local rock act that isn't influenced by them. In critic-speak the Radiohead influence has come to mean one element in particular, the use of laptop or programmed beats and loops. That isn't really fair to the beatified Brits themselves, or the bands trying to climb on their shoulders. Listening to this mostly-acoustic, jazz-affiliated outfit take on the Kid A tunes with no post-1970's technology at all allowed my mind to wander freely over all of the many other original things about Radiohead that all of these mediocre local dream-pop acts (with drummers shackled cruelly to click tracks) overlook. Sudden changes in time signature, tempo, and tone that disrupt without breaking song logic. Long, seemingly anchorless melodies that develop over time into the central pillar of a tune. Guitar and keyboard parts that cue off of prepared electronic noise to inspire new rhythms.
So here's Jones bowing the melody to "Idioteque" with an odd, stately dignity, as Shepherd swipes at glass bottles of different sizes, an organic way of referring to -- without necessarily regurgitating -- the album version's mechanized clanks. Here's Haynes approaching the full bells-and-whistles force of "National Anthem" by laying out, coming in very lightly, and then just adding mass as the drums and bass build momentum. Bells, gauzy chords, and stillness define their "Motion Picture Soundtrack." The songs on Radiohead's source material that leaned most on production effects, JWHT plays extremely closely -- "Kid A" and "Treefingers" turn out to have sturdy, memorable, immediate melodies with their cold surfaces removed. Songs with more pop structure on the LP, like "Morning Bell" or "Everything in Its Right Place," the band play a little more open-ended.
It's a reined-in, studio kind of performance as opposed to the all-hanging-out after-hours vibe of their live show at its red-eyed peak. The band's transitions are together, although they feel their way through a few of the tougher tempo changes. You can imagine them stretching out some of the tunes and further putting their mark on the performances, like the way Jones teases the "National Anthem" bassline a few times while Haynes is still working through the wind-up toy chords of "Kid A." I'm glad this is just a starting point for J. Wesley Haynes Trio. Whether it ends up an official release or a bootleg, their Kid A adoption is a creative way of getting more of the attention they deserve. It'll be interesting to see what they do next. They do some choice Pixies covers live.
I'm really into the idea of bands that find ways of keeping the idea of the album alive... with live shows. It's counterintuitive, but with listeners' music collection habits -- and attention spans -- as broken up as they are nowadays, what other time do you have other than the live show when an audience is going to pay attention to you for the whole length of an album? It takes a lot of work to make even a single cover your own, adapting it to your band's instrumentation and style and including enough of the original's memorable aspects to keep it recognizable and enjoyable. I would start a rock and roll cover band that does entire albums -- one album, every show, a different one each time -- in a second if I knew enough musicians crazy and hardworking enough to do it. Keep an eye out for the J. Wesley Haynes Trio, who will be playing their Kid A piece out at venues all over Austin this fall. If they start packing them in, maybe it'll start a citywide trend.
What albums would you like to see covered all the way through? Off the top of my head... Marquee Moon, Exile on Main Street, Revolver, Slanted and Enchanted, Paul's Boutique, Bee Thousand, Pet Sounds, Spiderland, This Years Model.... What would be a cooler way to do a show like that, have one fixed band and have them try and figure out how to bring a different style to each tune or do an all-star show and give each group a different track assignment? That would be a good party, right? Musicians in Austin have be ambitious and crazy and a little ridiculous to be heard. I'm pleased to pass on news of the efforts of those that succeed.