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A Psyche-Folk Heat Wave In Western Massachusetts

Neumu Contributing Editor Jennifer Kelly writes: On a mid-July evening in western Massachusetts, the main street is dotted with the detritus of college town life — bars, ice cream vendors, bookstore, comic and record stores. A table of ethnic percussion instruments has been set up in front of a small, unassuming brown church, set back from the sidewalk. This seems odd and out of place — in fact, this New England meeting house looks like the sort of place where you might think you could go months or years without hearing a sitar or amp-wracked harmonic, where music might tend toward "How Great Thou Art," and perhaps, if guitars are allowed, an acoustic version of "Amazing Grace."

Yet on this muggy, lazy night, Amherst's Unitarian Church has gathered musicians from the outer reaches of the psyche-folk movement for an evening that is strange, moving and intermittently beautiful.

The setting is unusual. The church's scallop-shell-shaped stage has a way of sculpting and preserving sounds, so that overtones and undertones sustain themselves over weirdly long intervals. It is, however, recognizably a church — there's a pulpit to one side and the audience has the choice of folding chairs or the dark wooden pews that have been shoved to the side — and this adds a layer of odd spirituality to performances by Tower Recordings collaborator Samara Lubelski, Matt Valentine and Erika Elder's MV+EE Medicine Show/Bummer Road, the raga-tinged blues of guitarist Sir Richard Bishop and, finally, the wonderful Akron/Family.

The show has not been very well publicized. Calls to various Amherst record stores the week before in an effort to buy tickets yielded no information and no tickets. There's a short notice in the local paper, one that barely mentions headliners Akron/Family, the Brooklyn folk/pop/improv collective that has recently toured as Michael Gira's Angels of Light. So, there's an air of unreality when, half an hour after the show is supposed to start, none of the artists seem to be at the venue and only a few straggling spectators have wandered into the little church. "Are you sure it's tonight?" my husband asks repeatedly, and I can only reply, "I think so."

Finally, the lights dim and Samara Lubelski takes the stage. A German singer/songwriter, Lubelski has collaborated with Hall of Fame and Tower Recordings. Her solo album, The Fleeting Skies, now out on Social Registry, features contributions from PG Six and other psyche-folk luminaries. Her songs are mysterious and lovely, her voice dreamily pure like Vashti Bunyan's, accompanied by a delicate web of picked guitar. She stops to retune midway through her set, and her songs take on an additional layer of hypnotic dissonance with the alternate tuning. She is, however, not a very dynamic performer — making almost no eye contact, never speaking except at the end to briefly thank the audience. The only thing that really moves is her fingers, nimbly navigating the latticework of notes supporting her luminous, neo-folk tunes.

If Lubelski is sublimely minimal, MV+EE Medicine show is nearly her opposite, carting a trust fund's worth of pristine instruments onto the stage — banjo, sitar, amplified harmonica, guitar, some sort of lap harp, violin, zither and electronics. The set begins with what Matt Valentine called "Welcome music," a shapeless yet absorbing miasma of Eastern-flavored, blues-leaning sounds. It is here that I first begin to notice the acoustics of the church, because the notes are hanging in the air much longer than you'd expect, colliding in interesting ways with the ones that succeed them. A long-haired boy in back is manipulating some sort of percussive sound with a microphone; the banjo notes twist like raga; the whole experience is ineffable and strange, but drags a little. There are some long, improvisatory, droning pieces (one of them, I think in retrospect, was "Oh Death") and also one that is more clearly and simply a blues tune. The musicians did a great deal of instrument switching, hauling out a musicologist's trove of Western, non-Western and custom-altered instruments.

I have to say that this bothers me a little. Some of the best bands I've ever seen play instruments so battered and used that you probably couldn't pawn them, and here is a band with an extensive, mint collection of exotica. Also, Valentine's introductions are opaque, with mumbo jumbo about spirits and such — either offputtingly pretentious or a little crazy or both. Still, there is no denying the power of the group's climactic ending piece, a dizzying cacophony of treated guitar notes, harmonica-induced howls and crashing, pounding waves of hypnotic sound. I've been listening to some MV+EE music since the show, and like it better than the concert.

By the time Sir Richard Bishop (of Sun City Girls) takes the stage, it has become clear that the day's heat is not going to dissipate as the evening wears on. My little boy has fallen asleep across my lap and I am fanning him with a piece of paper (the one I am taking notes on), and trying to keep the mosquitoes off. I've really hoped he'd stay awake for Sir Richard, whose gorgeous psyche-deltan guitar playing was one of the highlights of Locust Music's Wooden Guitar disc a couple of years back. But this is not to be. (Later, my son tells me that his eyes were closed, but he actually heard the whole show, and it was cool. Liar.)

As Bishop is setting up, I talk briefly to Akron/Family's Seth Olinsky, learning that he and his band had finished their "live" album following the tour with Angels of Light. We agree that the sound in the church was amazing and exchange heard-anything-goods. Seth, as it turns out, has been listening almost exclusively to Sir Richard Bishop's output on Sublime Frequencies, a boutique label that has been gathering music, both modern and traditional, from every corner of the Earth, with recent releases like Radio Sumatra, Radio Phnom Penh and, most intriguingly, Brokenhearted Dragonflies: Insect Electronica from Southeast Asia, which collects Burmese insect sounds.

This brief conversation helps set the stage for Bishop's multi-ethnic, gypsy-world-blues-jazz acoustic work. Bishop asks for one vocal mic — "In case I decide to yell, or something." (Amusingly enough, he does later do a song that combines Joplin-ish ragtime with a series of very animal-like yells.) With this very modest introduction, Bishop embarks on a very beautiful musical journey, dreamily traversing the Mississippi delta, passing through the British-folk-into-raga straits of Led Zeppelin III, and on to parts unknown — Moorish Spain, India, Chicago jazz boites and turn-of-the-century ragtime joints. One highlight of the set comes when he announces Django Reinhardt's "Echoes of Spain," a Gypsy flamenco masterwork by the famously maimed jazz guitarist. Bishop's fingers, though, are not fire-fused into a claw; they move nimbly, blurringly fast along the guitar's neck. Yet his skill, though always evident, is secondary to the music, which, however quickly it moves or however strenuously it requires him to change chords, is unfailingly wonderful, spiritual and heart-lifting.

Next up are Akron/Family, whose self-titled debut album, now out on Young God, is currently holding steady at #2 or #3 of my favorite albums for 2005. The album is a gorgeous mix of pop melodies, blues-folk guitar and literally anything else the band could get their hands on as they recorded songs and fragments in their Brooklyn apartment. You can hear phone sounds and wine glasses and even a creaking chair scattered among the tracks, and the drumming is more likely to be sticks on walls than sticks on drums. How will they translate this kitchen-sink-including style into a live setting?

For one thing, they bring a television set, which provides a buzz of feedback-y hiss under the acoustic strum of "I'll Be on the Water." You can tell, as Seth wrestles with the set in the raised pulpit, that he knows this is a funny thing to do. In fact, the whole band is smirking slightly, but that doesn't mean they're not going to do it, because it makes a cool sound. Similarly, when the band bursts into a harmonized, countrified chorus of "It's so sad that we have to grow old," you know that they know that it's humorous — both for the song's bright, joyful simplicity and the fact that none of them look to be anywhere near 30.

Yet while they are self-aware enough to recognize absurdity, Akron/Family are simultaneously, absolutely serious about what they're doing, absolutely absorbed in the moment. You can tell in the way they signal changes almost telepathically, moving from dead silence to swelling harmonies to multi-layered instrumentals with barely a nod. Watching their set, which incorporates bits of recognizable songs, but doesn't parade them in order before the audience, you start to understand the connection that these young men have to the jazz improv types (Bhob Rainey, Greg Kelley) they've featured on their album. Their performance is based on listening, intuiting, communicating, as much as it is on playing, and that in itself sets them apart from 90% of the bands you'll see in a live setting.

Akron/Family close with their haunting, wonderful "Sorrow Boy," ending the evening on a note of gentle tenderness. The crowd, never large, has thinned considerably. The heat has turned the show into a bit of an endurance event that, starting supposedly at 7:30, has now stretched past midnight. Audience members and players alike are covered with sweat, smelly, tired, thirsty — but it has been a lovely night all the same.

The InsiderOne Daily Report appears on occasion.

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