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Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville: Day 5 - May 19, 2008

John Kelman By

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Art Bears Songbook

When Rock-in-Opposition (RIO) progenitor Henry Cow began to fragment in terms of direction towards the end of its five-year run in 1978, multi-instrumentalist/composer Fred Frith, percussionist/lyricist Chris Cutler and singer Dagmar Krause splintered off into a new, more song-based project called Art Bears. With only three recordings—1978's Hopes and Fears, 1979's Winter Songs and 1981's The World As It Is Today, all reissued by ReR Megacorp—the Art Bears repertoire represented less than two hours of music and, conceived as a studio project, only toured briefly in 1979.

Art Bears Songbook

Zeena Parkins, Julia Eisenberg, Kristin Slipp, Chris Cutler, Fred Frith, Carla Kihlstedt



Thirty years later, Art Bears' diminutive discography is considered a seminal and highly influential part of the avant-prog/RIO movement. A series of small, independent occurrences including the 30th anniversary of the group's formation and the 25th anniversary of FIMAV created a most happy happenstance—Art Bears Songbook. Rather than a reunion (Krause was not available), which all-too-often implies by-rote replication of music for nostalgic baby boomers, Frith and Cutler decided to re-examine the trio's repertoire and refashion it for a thoroughly modernistic and expanded group that included three of Frith's four Cosa Brava band mates—keyboardist/accordionist Zeena Parkins, violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt and sonic manipulator The Norman Conquest—along with singers Jewlia Eisenberg and Kristin Slipp. The result was a performance that rang true to the spirit of Art Bears, but avoided excess reverence. The powerful emotional depth of the material (and its once again all-too-relevant lyrics) was not only enthusiastically received by FIMV festival goes, but was so compelling that some were quite literally moved to tears.



Book-ending a performance of the Winter Songs cycle with choice material from Hopes and Fears and The World As It Is Today, the show was an all-too-brief 75-minutes. But, opening with a high-energy version of Hopes and Fears' "Joan," with Kihlstedt's overdriven electric violin setting a high bar for the whole performance, it was immediately clear that the group was going to deliver on the audience's expectations, a remarkable feat considering the build-up of anticipation that took place over the months since FIMAV first announced the show.



None of the singers were capable of Dagmar Krause's eccentric and idiomatic delivery, but neither did they try. Instead, there was an opportunity for more extensive harmonies and three-voice interaction between Eisenberg, Slipp and Kihlstedt (four-part on the powerful reworking of Hopes and Fears' "The Dance," which closed the set with Frith adding his voice to the mix) rarely heard on Art Bears records, even with Krause multi-tracking her voice. Eisenberg was, however, somewhat idiosyncratic, bringing great energy to the more outre material from The World As It Is Today. Still, it was most often the combination of voices augmented by The Norman Conquest's astute sonic enhancements that gave these renditions new meaning and their own distinct validity.

Art Bears Songbook

Chris Cutler, Fred Frith



Moving from guitar and bass to violin and piano, Frith was clearly directing the proceedings, though Cutler's considerably more groove-centric approach to the music—often also fleshed out by The Norman Conquest's treatments—was equally important in providing the material a contemporary update. A flexible player, Cutler was equal parts propulsive rhythm engine and textural colorist.



Parkins provided a wealth of sonic backdrops that were especially key on some of the darker and densely-textured songs from Winter Songs. Kihlstedt's playing was a captivating blend of raw roots and sophisticated harmonic phrasing, at its best on songs like "Freedom," where her countrified lines at the intro and outro may have seemed like musical non sequiturs to the song's almost immediate detour into deeper catharsis (both musically and lyrically) but, on further reflection, made perfect sense. But it was the collective energy and, for material that in many instances was extraordinarily bleak, unmistakable enjoyment had by all that made this closing performance of FIMAV 2008 not just a highlight, but the highlight of the festival.



Frith's guitar playing was razor sharp with Cosa Brava, but he could have cut glass with Art Bears Songbook . As rare as it is to hear Frith in a rockier context these days, FIMAV audiences were treated to two very different slants over the course of a few days, although Frith's playing with Cosa Brava never reached the same degree of reckless abandon as heard with the Art Bears Songbook. And with songs like the vaudevillian "Law," from The World As It Is Today not only retaining its absurdity but its brevity as well (clocking in at less than a minute), the show resonated on so many levels, and with such depth, that the audience, clearly moved, wasn't prepared to let the group leave without an encore.



Fortunately Frith and Cutler had one more song up their sleeves, but even that wasn't enough. After a second lengthy standing ovation and with no more material to play, the group returned, with Frith commenting, "We're going to start again from the beginning and keep going until you've had enough." Had the audience had its way, the show might never have ended.


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