Blog of the AMM

Luke Staunton: Rather be a Mole in the Ground–Eugene Chadbourne at Cafe Oto, London, Apr 2014

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Country music. I can’t say I know much about it, even if I’ve spent the best part of 5 years visiting a nearby watering hole in Liverpool to listen to some of that old time Western Swing. After a few pints the conviviality takes hold and its all crooked preachers and cheating women, yes sir. Its a fine line though, with every two-bit tosspot picking up a ukulele and the warm plain winds of Americana buffeting the land with the scent of overpriced ‘gourmet’ burgers and pissy pale ales.

I can’t say I know that much about Eugene Chadbourne either. My listening chancily plucked from the internet – clips from gigs with Jimmy Carl Black as the Jack and Jim Show, an appearance in Derek Bailey’s Channel 4 documentary on improvisation (On the Edge), bathetic interpretations of songs from country names like Johnny Paycheck or Ray Wiley Hubbard alongside squeak-outs with avant-grandees like John Zorn. But this isn’t pastiche or plunder, no ironic winking to the assembled turtlenecks. You have to get into it before you get out of it, although maybe the way into it is through those tears and pockets Dr. Chad opens out into the songs, like this author finally getting the incendiary charge of punk through the hot blasts of free jazz peeling off the identity cladding of patches and mohawks.

What hits you from the off is how Chadbourne’s playing is inseparable from a STANCE ON LIFE, he gets up and fills out the room immediately with just a guitar and banjo stood to his side, an on the road dishevelment intimating thoughts of Radical America, or Chicago hobo and Wobbly Slim Brundage. He opens with a version of Merle Haggard’s The Way I Am, staking a position with a bamboo cane in the sand, to these ears the first signpost in the unfurling of a countercultural politics prised out from songs by The Temptations or Tammy Wynette: “the way I am / don’t fit no shackles / the way I am / Reality”.

The songs flow with no room for customary applause, just a prickly current of collective thought, lyrics alternately skewered on glinting guitar shards and held in suspension as objects of social interrogation, or else humour invading the song form and expanding it like nitrogen before a deflationary whoopee cushion sounds. Chad rubbing the scratchplate with wet finger like a squeaky nipple. This music is integrated, not some knowing abasement but a critical transformation. This is Zappa and The Mothers playing Doo-wop, or the dizzying sensation that a story from James Joyce’s Dubliners could spiral out into the whorl of Finnegans Wake or vice versa. What is the relationship to tradition and those awkward forms we hold clumsily? Chadbourne playing Old Piano might offer a clue, the old piano that nobody can play ‘strings are rusty / the keys mildewed to grey’, but he is playing, like Sister Rosetta Tharpe in That’s All eschewing inert scripture in favour of practical wisdom and a personal system related to the contingencies of us, we, I, it, here, now.

Nobody is going to do it for you, you have to keep finding a Clear Spot before it stagnates and becomes its opposite. Musical thinking as method, as Hendrix put it:“Music is going to break the way. It’s like the waves of the ocean.”

You can’t just cut out the perfect wavEugene Chadbourne Imagese and take it home with you. Its constantly moving.” There are times when there’s such an intersection you can’t tell what’s what any more. Chad stacks up premonitory swells of plucked banjo, ‘people will vote for whoever gives them food’. You’re convinced its a deep classic, air leaden with ashes like a fire at a sawmill, you don’t hear the incongruous slips from which you might date it. Slim B asks Chad in the break what the song was?: he wrote it himself, its about the Albanian elections, modern ‘news’ plucked from the temporal conveyor belt.

Perhaps for long time followers of Chad there is a lingering hint of sentiment in his recent playing, if there is then he can still daub a comic smear across the rictus of a Johnny Paycheck woman killin’ ditty, while the closing instrumental of the gig, to my parochial ears a refracted and splintered Over the Rainbow to go alongside Xero Slingsby and the Works, was enough to drive one punter to paroxysms of discomfort: ‘stop it, stop it, its gone on so long!’ (about 7 minutes in fact, but time doesn’t work like that). The light is too direct, let us return to the dim glow of our touchscreens.

To listen to Chadbourne and be a passing guest on his road travels is to recall what counterculture might mean, be it the arrayed home-recorded CDs laid out without recourse to prestige or the straight-up puncturing and refusal of respectability. Maybe improvisation (severed from its burgeoning snob value) in its furtive between the cracks insistence on our lives, here, now, is a riposte to the exhortations to BIG and BIGGER THINKING that saunters down the corridors of its own card houses built on packs of lies (R.G. Collingwood). I’d rather be a mole in the ground.

House of Chadula

One Comment

  • Out To Lunch says:

    Great polemic versus the poseurs, something I look for all the time and so rarely read. And being able to listen to the concert while you read an incisive, all-including review is new to me (articulacy and tape-swapping being mainly opposite zones at my peak of such activity 1980-95) – and, to my lo-fi ears, it’s a great recording, all the guitar/banjo a mix of Cafe Oto’s 10-track in-house recording would fail to deliver. Good work AMMers.

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