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Nels Cline Singers, Richard Crandell and Good For Cows at Johnny Brenda's

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Nels Cline Singers, Richard Crandell, and Good for Cows
Ars Nova Workshop at Johnny Brenda's
Philadelphia, PA
July 7, 2010

For one of the closing concerts of the 2009-2010 season, Ars Nova Workshop brought the Nels Cline Singers to Fishtown's Johnny Brenda's. Cline has developed the reputation of being a guitar superhero, and the Singers are the purest manifestation of his work, so it was a rare treat to see the group in Philadelphia for one of the most exciting concerts of the summer.

Openers Good for Cows are musicians with jazz credentials, but their music is much more akin to experimental rock bands like the Melvins and Ruins. The two-piece band featured Nels Cline Singers' bassist Devin Hoff on electric bass and drummer Ches Smith, who augmented his kit with a keyboard and synth pads. They opened the show with a song based on a slow bass riff that was reminiscent of doom-metal band Earth. As their first song ended, they launched into a series of pieces with quick stop/start changes and numerous time signatures. Any time a riff came close to settling into a groove, the duo would shift gears and make a sharp turn, pushing and pulling the audience with them. Good for Cows are equally suited to play at a punk rock show, where people would crowd the stage and headbang along with each time change. While this audience was certainly attentive, most kept their distance from the stage.

Having a set of quiet music situated between two louder and more aggressive sets is often a welcomed way to help an audience cleanse their aural palette. Richard Crandell did just that with his solo mbira set. The audience was growing as Crandell began and he managed to keep the gathering intimate by taking his time and sharing a story about each song. Most of his pieces began with a melodic riff that Crandell electronically looped, over which he would play a melody and improvise. While his combination of loops and live playing created interesting textures and interplay, the use of such repetition and soft tones made the set a bit sleepy. His second to last piece was performed completely live, with no loops, and was certainly his strongest of the evening, presenting the clearest melody and most focused improvising.

By the time the Nels Cline Singers hit, the audience was energized. The room was completely full and people crammed up to the front of the stage, ready to observe every move that Cline, Hoff, and drummer Scott Amendola made. Those who found close places were in luck: Nels Cline is fascinating to watch work. The guitarist rocked-out constantly while playing. Cline was almost completely surrounded by an array of pedals and other effects on which he was often busy clicking a switch or turning a knob to create sonic explosions that sent his tone to space in the midst of a given piece. This frequently generated surprise and excitement in the audience, which was returned with cheers and hollers. Hoff, who alternated between upright and electric bass for the Singers' set, and Amendola, who also used an electronics rig, closely followed Cline's lead through the peaks and valleys of each piece, whether dropping bombs, hitting grooves, or creating textures of harsh noise.

Nels Cline's compositions often feature quick dynamic or time changes over the course of numerous sections, which are frequently filled with heavy-hitting improvisations. This created a constant narrative of change throughout the band's set, which is probably the most impressive thing about this band. On "A Mug Like Mine," the group casually settled into mid-tempo blues-groove for about 8 measures in the midst of a longer section where Cline played a fast, ripping solo over the rhythm section's free-wheeling swing feel. Despite such a seemingly disparate change, the transitions were made so smoothly that they always felt natural and within the scope of each piece.

During the group's long performance, they moved through a wide range of material, from loud noise rock, to free-jazz, and ballads. For the last few songs, they were joined by keyboardist Yuka Honda. After a spacial ballad, they accelerated the pace and went into funky, groove-based material that even got some of the audience dancing before the band said, "Goodnight."

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