Dirty Baby by Nels Cline, David Breskin and Ed Ruscha at Walker Art Center, 11/29/12

Categories: Concert Review
Photo by Lily Troia

DIRTY BABY: Nels Cline/David Breskin/Ed Ruscha
McGuire Theater, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
Thursday, November 29, 2012

Wednesday marked the second-ever (and perhaps last) performance of DIRTY BABY, a trialogue featuring the compositions of visual artist Ed Ruscha, poet David Breskin and musician/composer/guitar savant/Wilco dude Nels Cline.

The stage was set for ten, with a podium and menagerie of instruments, amps and pedals spread out beneath a huge projection screen. It was an intimidating feat to review an artistic endeavor that simultaneously involved three mediums: 66 Ruscha images paired with 66 Breskin poems, cast in the hypnotic net of corresponding Cline compositions, intent to capture and convey the constantly shifting Zeitgeist of America with a capital A.

A dense work that "marries music to pictures, pictures to poems and poems to music," DIRTY BABY combines these artists' talents in fascinating ways that could be unpacked for days. The piece, which was released as an album in 2010, features Side A, a narrative, sharing the "tall tale of American civilization" and, Side B, investigating the "American misadventure in Iraq", consisting of 33 brief compositions (most clocking in around a minute) paired with Ruscha's Cityscapes works, some of the most abstract in his extensive catalog. DIRTY BABY is perhaps best appreciated when felt as much as (if not more than) analyzed.

Photo by Lily Troia

The lights dimmed and with no introduction, the nine musicians (including Cline's wife Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto fame) and poet quietly took the stage. Above, on the screen was an imposing Ruscha Cityscape with red rough-edged rectangles arranged horizontally in several dissimilar rows. Breskin, at the podium, began, with wry command, "You talk, you get killed. Come play, be our pleasured guest at Gitmo." In the salty voice of a tour guide, he exchanged couplets with Nels, who immediately beckoned distorted harmonics and wild timbre modulations from his guitar. After about ten couplets of the ghazal (a Persian form of verse) sardonically warning visitors of the many hazards they'd likely encounter "at Gitmo," the band broke into a swampy, harmonica-driven blues groove. Nels guitar tones' changed color every few bars and resonated with scapula-shaking intensity. Just a few minutes in and it was certain to be a viscerally-charged evening.

After a bit of vamping, Nels halted the band with a swift finger eliciting a sudden response of fierce applause from the audience. Breskin then continued with some opening remarks and explanations, accompanied by more than a handful of witticisms and one-liners. "This ain't no ring cycle" he joked, explaining why due to time constraints, the ensemble would only perform selections from DIRTY BABY. In addition, he announced, for those who had not already figured it out, they would continue by performing selections from Side B first, then Side A. Indeed, the piece was conceived as something seamless, reversible, a "book which opens out rather than closes in". Breskin cited also a desire to reverse the order philosophical questions posed by each side -- i.e., asking first Where did we end up? (Side B) before How did we get here? (Side A) -- a socio-cosmic game of Jeopardy.

The screen shifted to the next frame and Breskin began "If I Was You I'd Do Just Like I Tell You to Do," a smarmy ghazal in the voice of an arrogant soldier, accompanied by a frenetic bop drum/bass theme quickly overtaken by train-like chords from the keys, harmonica and guitars. The group followed with eight of the 33 pieces from Side B, each beginning with Breskin's poem, followed by Cline's minute-long musical expression of the same Bruscha painting displayed above.

The brevity of each piece made it difficult to ruminate for long on any one idea, but realizing that confusion was intentional, the spastic exchanges formed their own chaotic rhythm if you'd allow yourself to let go. As Breskin and the musicians would jolt us along, the audience, at first unsure how or when to respond, began to do so spontaneously -- laughter at a witty political pun, hoots after a particularly gorgeous section with Cline on lap steel, and even a lone "YEA" when a cacophonous moment suddenly ceased into silence.

Following "Do as Told or Suffer", a poem about Saddam, Cline offered a rich, organ-like harmonized melody on his guitar, alternating with heavy distortion barbs in more hurried succession until the sound shook the hall like machine gun fire or bomber planes. Above, the Cityscape featured red with white, almost face-like blocks on the screen; I found myself staring deeply until the colors and lines began to vibrate along with the music. Galloping, bombastic music was married to "I'm Going to Leave More Notes and I'm Going to Kick More Ass," whose poem was culled from actual G. W. Bush quotes during a video conference to military generals during the Iraq War. On the Walker website, Cline noted that this choice of music intentionally referenced the U.S.'s alleged use of heavy metal as a method of torture when interrogating detainees.

The final Side B selection, "You Will Eat Hot Lead", layered a low bass drone with angry Breskin couplets. One moment Nels was a man possessed, culling futuristic moans from his guitar and dancing back and forth on his pedals like a shaman; the next, he'd wave an arm or shake a finger at the band with precision, directing an obscure change amidst the improvisatory stew.

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