Barryfest Endorses: Basement Shows

Without any knowledge of history or topography, one would think that a city with as much filth and poverty as New Orleans would have a stronger hollowed-out basement scene. But unlike our blighted correlatives all the way up in Detroit, we don’t live the basement life, which is a shame considering our ballooning numbers of gutter punks and the infinite uses they’d find for a dark, abandoned underground hideaway.  But as it so happens, the low-lying-bowl abnormality that caused New Orleans to disastrously flood half a decade ago is the same reason that her residents are forced to keep their wine cellars, man caves, fight clubs and secret sex families above ground.

Sure, living in the progressive Mecca of the deep south, we’re accustomed to experiencing punk and rock n’ roll in the most unconventional venues and, like our many other points of metropolitan eccentricity, with a certain whimsical pride. Yet, even as we enthusiastically fill the city’s all-purpose galleries,  pseudo-LGBT theatre bars, arthouse picture shows (RIP Movie Pitchers), tree houses, green houses, shotgun houses and coffee shops, we must tacitly admit that we’re missing out on the single most thrilling setting in which to enjoy rock n’ roll against a backdrop of dim serial-killer-grade yellow lights, dusty broken bottles and unsittable toilets: the basement rock show.

In the UK, basements were practically the breeding ground of anarchist punk, while in the US they’re all but inseparable from the image of a Middle America high school kid’s wasted hours worshiping the Stooges, Black Sabbath, Neil Peart.  Here in New Orleans, where it’s not just logistically but physically impossible to experience a basement show, we’ve had to make due, and we’ve slowly begun to do so admirably by utilizing the plethora of flood-excised, garden level first floors found in nearly every traditional-style home in the city. I don’t think all that “resetting the clock” imagery in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button contemplated a dystopian world where college kids wantonly offer their gutted bottom floors out to whatever experimental noise pop collective or girl punk band happens to need a makeshift venue, but it’s pretty rad whenever they do because the result always tends to be an epically inebriated, smoke-filled ripper of rowdy pits, gritty sound, toppling amps and traditional Irish drinking chants. And the fact that these shows can be as legendary as they are without the perverse titillation of sauntering down a rickety staircase into a dingy menacing basement (you know the feeling: that mutton-chopped bartender following Brad Pitt and Edward Norton as they prepare to pound faces while “Goin’ Out West” by Tom Waits plays in the background) is just as much a testament to how correct New Orleanians combine seediness and rock n’ roll as it is to how completely bad ass the “real thing” must be.

photo credit: Ricky Adam

 

Barryfest Endorses: Avant-Garde Side Projects

With a Webster’s Dictionary definition like “of or relating to an intelligentsia that develops new or experimental concepts, especially in the arts”, it’s no wonder so many musicians get blindly lost in the unavoidable pretention of being “avant-garde”.  Some musicians spend their entire lives attempting to meet the aims of that definition, and are accountable for the merits, importance, detractions and drawback of such a paradoxically narrow-minded approach to music-making.  More interesting though are the artists who – though generally working within the confines of mainstream music – take the occasional mental and intellectual vacation with an overly-indulgent avant-garde side project.

Whether it’s in the form of ambient synthesizer harmonies, spoken-word after-school-special sound collages, the use of home appliances as instruments, playing a guitar with a violin bow, or simply a taking part in a uniquely unexpected collaboration, there exists at the very least an honorable novelty to these extra-curricular endeavors.  Les Claypool’s numerous (Oysterhead, Les Claypool’s Fancy Band, Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains), progressively strange collaborations (with cats like Stewart Copeland, Trey Anastasio, Buckethead, Bernie Worrell from Parliament and all those dudes from Bob Weir’s RatDog), or the damn-near twenty albums of pure, unadulterated indigestible noise that Mars Volta guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has put out since 2004 are nothing if not expansive fodder for intoxicated late night musical debate.

The phrase “avant-garde side project” itself is, in one glaring sense, classic American redundancy. To many people (especially people in rock bands), the idea of doing an independent-leaning side project at the expense of the band is in and of itself avant-garde: the band is the wholly original identity of a unified group of individuals, joining up for the long haul to avoid the trappings of Capitalism’s inherent money grab and the dehumanization that inevitably follows it; free agency is a luxury reserved for the prima-donnas that fill the roster of professional sports teams.

On the other hand, in New Orleans – a place whose rock, funk, jazz and hip hop scenes are as free-form and incestuous as any in the world – we assume not only that a singer or songwriter will branch off to work on his own or with others, but that, at any given time, every member of a group will be involved in multiple projects, stretched out so seemingly thin that their ability to hold it all together is nearly as impressive as their prolific output; and it’s even endearing when the members of bands of higher stature or more national prominence behave in a similar manner. Add to that a universally-shared attraction to the overtly weird, and you occasionally end up with music that gracefully escapes the trappings of mainstream critical and commercial expectations by sharpening the often-blurred line between artist and listener.

Bradford Cox, the Deerhunter front man whose solo work as Atlas Sound is regarded in some circles as highly as that of his day job, provides a justification that applies not only to his own avant-garde leanings but to the practice as a whole: “Some of it is absolutely, terrifyingly bad, but sometimes I’m just like, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’” Indeed, sometimes the results are bad but sometimes they’re good; likewise, sometimes music’s insanely strange, but other times it’s inexplicably normal. Whatever the end result, it’s amazing to hear the effect it has on the original band’s music.  David Bryne‘s magnificently unholy alliance with Brian Eno revolutionized the not just the sound of Talking Heads but the entire new-wave movement, yet their long-simmering exclusive pairing (1981’s remarkable My Life In The Bush of Ghosts) precipitated the band’s demise.

Thankfully, it’s very rarely such a destructive force. When Jeff Tweedy made some solo time from Wilco in early 2000 to put together Loose Fur, he formed possibly the ultimate avant-garde side project by calling up experimental Sonic Youth producer Jim O’Rourke. The music itself wasn’t ambient, noisy, or even all that much of an experiment; but the idea of having singer/songwriter – sometimes referred to as a bona fide poet – from the Midwest pair up with a modernist art music engineer of O’Rourke’s caliber is both one of the most out-of-the-box ideas ever conceived and one of the most innovative developments in contemporary music. The indirect result of this collaboration was the now-legendary American classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

But regardless of the lasting impact of the fruits of these originative detours, a mere record of their existence – be it good, bad, interesting or ultimately ill-advised – is a welcome addition to a musician’s discography.  Any artist who makes it anywhere in the infinitely fractured and expansive hobgoblin that is “the music industry” is undoubtedly a veritable font of  creative energy, the curator of an endless stream of invention that can’t ever be fully reigned in.  The portion deemed “appropriate” for mainstream consumption is often just the tip of the iceberg, and a window into the rest of any artist’s boundless imagination should be cherished.

MP3: Loose Fur: “Ruling Class”

Barryfest Endorses: Smoking Cigarettes at Rock Shows

I have long argued that any city-wide determination on whether or not the proprietor of a private business was allowed to permit smoking on his or her premises was draconian at best and unconstitutional at worst.  If people think a particular bar is “too smoky”, they are free to drink or seek employment elsewhere – just as they are free to leave if they decide that the drink prices, seating availability, noise level, or any one of the other myriad characteristics of a particular watering hole aren’t up to snuff.

If people didn’t like the smoke, they can go to an establishment where cigarette use has been voluntarily banned.  And if enough people make this choice, who am I to stand in the way of any organic change afoot.  After all, the will of the people is the will of the people.  But to me, banning smoking would be like requiring every bar to stock their jukebox with a particular set of albums – something that, no matter how agreeable it may be to a certain portion of the population, is not the job of lawmakers.

After my college years in Chicago (a city hilariously behind the curve when it came to smoking bans), I did a spell in Minneapolis, a metropolis that had just adopted the very anti-smoking initiatives I so vehemently opposed.  As someone well-versed in the simple pleasure of chasing draft beer with a Camel Light from the comfort of a bar stool in a climate controlled environment, I was worried about how this was all going to pan out.  Not surprisingly, it went just fine.  Even during my darkest booze-induced nic-fits, the new rules felt more like a minor inconvenience than the fascist oppression for which I had braced myself.

By the end of of my stint in the Great North, I even gained some affection for this new world order.  But just as I was getting to used to a smoke-free existence, I moved down to New Orleans, where – despite an increasingly long-list of bars and venues that have voluntarily banned the practice – you can pretty much smoke wherever the hell you please.  It took approximately zero minutes for me to get re-acclimated to the wanton and borderless tobacco consumption that defined my time in Chicago; and you know what? It’s glorious, maybe even better than I remembered.

I have no problem with any smoking ordinances, and encourage everyone to faithfully adhere to any posted policy.  But it is easy to forget that there was a time in the (not so distant) past when the idea of walking into any bar, a brick and mortar structure operating with the sole purpose of getting people intoxicated, that disallowed smoking was incomprehensible.  If that bar or venue happened to be offering music of any stripe – from a local punk band to a well curated jukebox – then the idea was elevated to nothing short of absolutely ludicrous.

Whether or not smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol are inextricably linked is a tired debate in which I have no interest to participate; but there is something undeniably transcendent about the triumvirate of smoking, drinking and seeing rock ‘n’ roll music.  The fact that this notion seems antiquated in this day and age of politically correct grandstanding and moral majorities only serves to make it more pertinent.

Second-hand smoke may not have a place at the table of a gastropub or in the uncomfortable booths of a Dallas-themed cocktail lounge, just as it has no place in grocery stores or on airplanes. But rock ‘n’ roll is from an entirely different provenance than goat cheese profiteroles or a French 75.  Pretending otherwise is as embarrassing to those advocating anti-smoking measures in rock clubs as it is insulting to the tax-paying citizens who enjoy seeing a rock band the way G-d intended: through a faint, low-hanging haze; equal parts exhaled carcinogens and freedom.

MP3: Steely Dan: “My Old School”

Barryfest Endorses: Listening to The Doors During Mardi Gras

It was once thought, among philosophers of the Current and Future State of MusicTM, that the Doors made the perfect music for extreme cold weather in big cities. However, the nuances of such a notion confounded, mystified, and ultimately divided experts who, unable to account for the vast sociological, economic, and ethnic diversity that characterizes most major US cities, couldn’t systematically articulate how, when, and by whom the Doors were to be enjoyed.

Was it for the poor or the down and out, as evidenced by “Been Down So Long”? Is “The Changeling” only for those planning to start a new life as a drifter? Do you need to own a car to enjoy “Moonlight Drive”?

Ultimately, no one could come up with a hard and fast rule. Some people lived in cities, but they weren’t all big; and some of those cities were cold, but not all of them. The only thing these experts could genuinely agree on was that “Break on Through” was the official song of using psychedelic drugs in wartime Vietnam. After laying down this decree, most simply dropped the subject and never thought about it again.

We at Barryfest, after several years of research in many cities with different climate types, have come up with a unifying theory of the Doors: Their’s is the ultimate music to listen to during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

As it turns out, the size of the city is less relevant than what is going on in that city at a given time. Though temperature is no longer an issue, extreme cold certainly helps if you leave the Bacchus parade route on foot and walk into the crowded smoky barroom of the Mayfair to hear “Roadhouse Blues” blaring in your right ear while someone hands you a High Life. But even if Mardi Gras falls after New Orleans’ subtropical climate has shaken off the chill of her short but despised winter, is “Spanish Caravan” any less fitting a soundtrack for an ill-advised walk down Prytania Street?

We suggest making sure you have the band’s entire library on your person at all times during Mardi Gras. Load it on your smart phone, have your Doors Pandora Station ready, and get yourself multiple CDs for driving because you will need “Peace Frog” to start every day and, trust us on this, you don’t want to be caught up at the end of the night without “L.A. Woman” at your fingertips.