Live Guitars From New York: Chris Brokaw, Alan Licht, Elliott Sharp, Sonny Landreth & Daniel Johnston

Martin Longley By

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The Chris Brokaw Guitar Trio
with Alan Licht/Greg Kelley/Sean Meehan
The Knitting Factory

October 8, 2009

The new Knitting Factory is a transplant from the old downtown Tribeca location to this new space in Brooklyn's Williamsburg district. It might seem superficially out-of-the-way, but it's only two stops on the subway out of Manhattan, followed by a five-minute stroll.

It's more intimate but also more unified, as there's a large soundproofed window allowing a view from the front bar into the back-room performance area. It's going to be harder to book some of the bigger-name bands of old, but this particular gig posed no problem as its avant-ish nature harked back to the original ethos of the club.

Chris Brokaw played drums with Codeine and guitar with Chris Welcome in the 1990s, subsequently developing a solo career where he's concentrated on guitar and vocals. Though renowned for overloaded electrics, Brokaw's latest manifestation is a trio of acoustic 12-string guitars, concentrating on a mostly instrumental repertoire. He's joined by Michael Davison and Zachary Cale, their mission being to strum with resonant glee, simply and cumulatively. There's not much intricate finger-picking on show, and the general feel is a fusion of vague Medievalism with folksy Bert Jansch/John Fahey/Jack Montrose jangles. The flow is linear, with few decorative diversions. The short set included one song sung by Brokaw, whilst his partners vacated the stage for a spell. The solo Brokaw interlude featured some more detailed work, but the most arresting music of the evening turned out to be the ostensible supporting act's extended improvisation.

The trio of guitarist Alan Licht, trumpeter Greg Kelley and percussionist Sean Meehan played after Brokaw but were lower down on the billing. The tiny audience were pleasingly hushed as this threesome embarked on some of the quietest possible sounds. Meehan could barely earn the term drummer: he stroked a thin stick down to a snare capped with a thick gong-cymbal, creating a high tone, as Kelley barely breathed through his horn, muted and blown against a small sheet of metal (or possibly cardboard).

Licht appeared to be using his guitar as a tone-generator, and the ultimate aim was to create sparse sounds that weren't necessarily identifiable as springing from their particular instruments. Arguably, there wasn't much actual content, but the curiously concentrated atmosphere managed to instill the bar-space with an almost creepily scarce amount of sonic information. They didn't rock. They barely existed. The bar's periodically slamming door became part of the piece, and folks weren't always leaving. Sometimes they remained, caught in the spell.

Elliott Sharp

Judson Church

October 9, 2009

New York guitarist Elliott Sharp was premiering a new piece for the annual Ear To The Earth festival, an event that's dedicated to the connection between environment and sound, or possibly location and music. The work is called "Ganging The Hook," a reference to Corlear's Hook, a shore area on Manhattan's East River. This is where Sharp would habitually stroll with his children, often at such an early hour that he'd witness the sunrise. Soon, Sharp began to make field recordings, and take photographs of the experience.

The concept of this piece appears quite direct. Ambient gurglings and rushings are treated and deployed as a base for guitar improvisations that are in keeping with the cumulative water-layering, transport thrum and, later, bird-song. Images were projected on a pair of flanking screens, very gradually documenting the sunrise. Sharp was strumming then upping his volume knob from zero, crafting deep textures, or fingering involved patterns to sneak in-between the electroacoustic rivulets. He applied an e-bow for disembodied effects, deeply moaning. This was a painterly approach to musical landscaping, and even if it didn't seem particularly involved, there was still a generative quality of cumulative development. It was an alternative form of minimalism: nothing more, nothing less.

Sonny Landreth

B.B. King Blues Club

October 12, 2009

Slide guitarist Sonny Landreth is the embodiment of Louisiana power- trio blues rock. This might be a very specialized field, but Landreth's broad appeal is such that he can speak the language of barnstorming, as well as infusing his sound with techniques that border on the experimental.

Even a familiarity with his recorded work doesn't prepare the onlooker for the flamboyant hammering of his open right hand, which can craft resounding riffs when forcefully struck, or create jangling harmonics when lightly stroked.

His trio smokes from the uncut essence of over-the-top. Landreth plays the blues, frequently in instrumental form, but he casts in traditionally Southern flavors, sometimes following in the wake of Creedence Clearwater Revival, at others aiming for some kind of magnified zydeco thrash. The bass and drums are solid, but the latter in particular attain a free fluidity, especially at the extended climaxes of each number.

Landreth packed B.B. King's Club, transforming the crowd into a howling, head-shaking rabble. This is an artist with a devout set of followers, and this seething show acted as a suitable illustration of how he's earned such a heavy degree of worship.

Daniel Johnston

Highline Ballroom

October 14, 2009

The Californian singer and guitarist Daniel Johnston has made his reputation as an outsider artist, a musical primitive who nevertheless knows all about projecting a song. Playing to a crammed crowd at the Highline Ballroom, Johnston studiously makes his small electric guitar sound like an abused plastic ukulele. His vocal delivery is 'wayward,' when judged from a conventional, academic perspective. What Johnston possesses is an uncut communicative power, a naked channel inside his unsullied-by-training gut. His habit of shaking the microphone became so extreme that it fell apart twice, needing to be re-assembled by his co-guitarist and the sound engineer. Eventually, they gave him a new, indestructible replacement.

Johnston's own words are personal, but he also makes the lyrics of John Lennon and Paul McCartney resound with a fresh placement. It's no secret that Johnston has a personal shrine for The Beatles. Watching this performance, a realisation hits that most of the artists who cover Beatles songs lie at the easy listening end of the spectrum. In modern times, not many outfits will attempt a 'meaningful' reading. How extraordinary, then, that Johnston, with all of his supposedly untutored tics, can make an impromptu selection resonate with such profundity. By this time, he'd been joined by a full band, and the versions of the largely-Lennon "A Day In The Life," "I'm So Tired" and "Isolation" pricked deep inside an exposed nerve. Johnston managed to build up from a completely solo fragility to a rocking climax that suggested a 1970s maraca-shakin' jam session, the stage invaded by a crowd of guests and/or supporting act band members.

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