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

Categories: Concert Review

Side A was presented first as a selection of 10 or so ghazals read by Breskin, addressing the ancient question of "How did we get here?" as chronicled by the tale of American civilization. Breskin's words had a musicality all their own as he delighted us with rhymes on the beginnings of man, the rise of industrialization, even the etymology of the word "Ho." Poem/painting combos like Man, Wife, featuring silhouettes of a large and small ship tossed at sea ("You'd have to ask Ed which is which." Breskin joked) seemed especially popular among the audience who chortled at its wry, harsh critiques of marriage. Personally, I connected more with the melancholy pieces ("Hope" - "is there a sadder word in all the world?") and ones more clouded conceptually ("Digit House" - "chasing the leopardess flux"). But what a special treat, to sit among hundreds, including those onstage, rapt and perched on a poet's every word, under the halo of such outstanding visual works.

Breskin then left the remainder of the evening to Nels and his cast of talents to perform the music from Side A in its entirety: a suite of 6 continuous pieces meant to take listeners on a journey from the age of microbes to the reign of G.W. With lava-like continuity, Cline led his ensemble with all the nuance lost in manifest destiny. In keeping with Breskin's guiding notion of polyphony, the Nels' compositions layered thoughts on top of ideas, daydreams on top of nightscapes, exchanging haunting unisons with rich harmonies. With the same ease, the band would flow in and out of sonorous and experimental washes of sound.

Afforded more space to unfold than in the short pieces on Side B, Side A gave shape to the contrasts of sparseness and thickness more acutely. Several minutes into a very Frisell-esque, almost film score melodic thought, the band oozed into a disjunct, noisy segment harkening to transmissions from a satellite. Later, a beautiful acoustic guitar duet, tugging at the Gypsy link from Iberia to the Fertile Crescent, evolved into a rollicking acid jazz jam reverent to the early 70s Miles Breskin hoped to have Nels emulate. It was easy to get lost in a sensory blanket, with Ruscha's haunting, eery silhouettes charting our aural journey of being, until Part VI dissipated into a picked guitar tantric trance that slowly sifted into silence. The audience seemed too awestruck to respond, or too confused to know the show was over (or perhaps both), and it took a wave of Nels' hand to indicate to us that it was time to applaud.

Photo by Lily Troia

The crowd filtered to about half full for the Q & A that followed, including not only Breskin and Cline, but also Ed Ruscha, who kept jovially insisting that he was merely a "silent partner." The session offered a detailed look at the complex, yet organic compositional processes involved, the challenges of performing a piece that was intended as a book and the philosophical ramifications of words, place and the messy offspring we create.

This exquisite, enveloping show will likely stay with us for days, steeping into our subconscious, which reminded me of an apt Ruscha quote "Art has to be something that makes you scratch your head".


Side B:

You Talk, You Get Killed
(opening remarks - David Breskin)
If I Was You I'd Do Just as I Tell You to Do
No Mercy
Do As Told or Suffer
I'm Going to Leave More Notes and I'm Going to Kick More Ass
Don't Threaten Me With Your Threats
I Just Might Get Ugly if You Talk
You Will Eat Hot Lead

Side A:

Selected ghazals read by Breskin
Dirty Baby: Parts I-VI

Followed by Q&A with Nels Cline, David Breskin and Ed Ruscha

Random Detail: I noticed a handwritten price tag hanging from Devin Hoff's electric bass and randomly thought, "I wonder if that came from Willie's American Guitars?", knowing of the shop's Wilco relationship. Sure enough during the Q&A, Nels mentioned that since the ensemble was an ad hoc assemblage of his favorite musicians and they had just come together for this singular performance, they had to swing by Willie's and borrow much of the gear for the show.

The Crowd: About 70/30 male to female, mostly over-45 Walker-patron-esque types, interspersed with stocking-capped young guitar geeks.

Overheard: From a younger flannel-wearing collegeish lad "That was...so much information."

Critic's Bias: I've had a gigantic creative crush on Nels Cline for years, Wilco and beyond, though this was my first opportunity to see him perform in an avant garde project. I feel privileged to have experienced such a monumental, unique creative endeavor.

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