High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Legends on the Doppler Radar: The Flatlanders at OTSFM

Saturday night was the night. No longer would I be denied the opportunity to investigate first hand the physics-defying properties of Jimmie Dale Gilmore's Voice, as we had tickets for the Flatlanders' late show. Which was really itself a thinly veiled excuse to eat TREASURE! at IHOP in the middle of the night.

For the last 2 months, there has been a different person introducing the Secret Country shows, and he also introduced this show. He's a rambler and he was in fine rambling form on Saturday night. Just as he'd nearly managed to pry himself off the microphone, he decided to contemplate whether opening act Jenny Scheinman played the violin or the fiddle.

As she took the stage, M leaned over and said, "With that dress and that hair: Fiddle." I responded: "Most importantly, with those shoes: Fiddle." As it is with graduate students, so it is with bluegrass: By their clunky shoes shall ye know them.

Now, I feel as though I am betraying a sister by opening with a fashion report, but I cannot simply let pass the fact that she was, in fact, wearing two dresses. On top was a flame-colored satin, sleeveless, night-gownish thing and underneath was an orange, sleeveless, tie-neck dress that might have been a shirtwaist (couldn't tell, because of the overdress). It was decidedly odd, but being about 12 feet tall and slender in a buff way, she certainly wore it better than 99% of the population could have.

Scheinman is a violinist/fiddle player and vocalist, and she was accompanied by Tony Scherr. that Time Out: Chicago article refers to Scherr as a bassist, which I think is the crack talking. I've no doubt he can play the bass, but he was on guitar and harmony vocals Saturday.

I can't seem to locate the first song that they did. This probably isn't surprising, because all I can remember about it is something about a train whistle and a letter home. I guess that rules out electronica, but that's about it. I have a feeling that it's Bill Frisell related, but haven't been able to substantiate that hunch. Anyway, it was a lovely song and Scheinman's voice is just perfect for it. I also liked the second song they did, which was Lucinda Williams' "King of Hearts."

From there, she went into some of her original works, and we were less on board. For M the objections were: not a great lead-in to the Flatlanders (I concur, although not for the same reasons) and that Scheinman strums and plucks her violin too much, rather than bowing (I find this objection completely bizarre, but record it for posterity nonetheless).

Her original works, at least so far as she told us about them, tend to be highly personal. For example, one song was her version of a classic Little Richard-style
rock-n-roll song she wrote for her uncle, another was a meandering blues/jazz piece about her aunt who disappeared. They tended to be long and more like beat poetry with incidental music than songs qua songs. Also, lots of interludes with guitar wankery. Highly skilled guitar wankery, but wankery nonetheless. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with any of those things, but it made for a weird opening act for anyone, let alone the Flatlanders.

But more than just the nature of what she chose to play not really suiting the occasion, I found much of the later parts of her set trying in and of themselves. For whatever reason, these pieces tended to be set in a not-particularly pleasant part of her register (or at last a part that doesn't appeal to me), resulting in her being somewhat shrill and breathy leading in, then sliding down off the tone. A lot of it also seemed to be relentlessly dissonant relative to the guitar and I wasn't entirely sure that this was deliberate. Ok, now that I've been a total bitch regarding a musician who is obviously well love by many other musicians in general and by the Flatlanders in particular, I'll move on to the main event.

For those of you who might not know (we pity you), the Flatlanders are Joe Ely, Butch Hancock (his notoriously low profile stays low by minimizing web presence, I guess), and the man whose voice I had to see for myself (synesthesia pun intended), Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

Each has quite justifiably achieved solo success. Jimmie's One Endless Night is one of the strangest albums I've ever loved (and I love some fairly strange albums). My appreciation for Joe and Butch has come later (Joe, courtesy of Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch and Butch from the XM broadcast of the January Secret Country show, which we just listened to on the way out to Philadelphia earlier this month.)

Given the impressive solo street cred and the extremely intermittent nature of the Flatlanders, it's strange to still think of each of them as Flatlanders, first and foremost. But I do and I don't think I'm alone in that. Having now . . . and please forgive me for using overused word, but it's the only one that suits . . . experienced them, I think I get why that is.

Great googly moogly, what a terrific show! From minute one, the whole auditorium was just crackling with energy. Not too shabby for a band whose first live album was recorded less than a week after I was born. As great as they are individually (and they are undeniably great), the Flatlanders is more than the sum of those parts. They clown and laugh and chat with one another and with the guys backing them up. Being there is fun and comfortable and energizing and everything else that live performance should be.

Given that introversion is already prepathologized for your convenience, I'm loath to cite any down sides to it. But I can't deny that sometimes I experience genuine pain when I realize that I don't have anyone new to introduce to something I really really love, whether it's a book, a song, a movie, a composer, or whatever. Given the disconnect between a real person and a stage persona, I don't care to speculate on the Meyers-Briggs status of any of these gentlemen. Nevertheless, there is such a strong sense of them saying "You just have to hear this!" every time they launch into a song or a store. They love every note and every passage and every lyric and every anecdote attache to every one of those things, and they want to share it all with you.

M was reading to me from somewhere a comment that the Flatlanders is really "Jimmie Dale Gilmore's Band," based on who sings leads. I don't deny whoever wrote that the right to his/her opinion, but that was so far from my impression of things on Saturday.

In fact, one of the best parts of the evening was an extended nonmusical interlude in which Jimmie (eventually) pondered the fact that he, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, was about to sing a Joe Ely song written by Butch Hancock. Of course, that point was arrived at by way of a digression on a dream visit Butch had from the Little Man from Another Place, who played him a reel-to-reel tape of Jimmie singing a song that he knew he had to write down. And that story involved some ruminations on Bertrand Russell's analysis of the omphalos hypothesis, at which point Joe and Jimmie crowed about playing songs that hadn't even been written yet, leading Butch to deadpan, "This is why we only record one record every 30 years."

Of course, my perceptions of this stage full of peace love joy and harmony is probably unduly influenced by my Workplace Porn project. No, not that kind of workplace porn, sickos. My WPP involves projecting an ideal, collaborative, happy workspace on to those who produce art and/or popular culture (I make that distinction only to convey with clarity the fact that the WPP encompasses my love for everything from Buffy and Stargate to productions of Mozart operas, not because I have any particular faith in an art/craft distinction). Having never had a happy, fulfilling workplace, it's important to me that this WPP Mantitaurixiechan exist somewhere. If it doesn't exist in the Flatlanders, they're doing one bang-up imitation of it.

The whole show was a funny, collaborative delight. For the last few songs, they had Jenny and Tony up on stage for some extended jams. By this point in the show, Jimmie was so excited that he messed up lyrics twice and, in an utterly charming, unstoppable stream-of-consciousness way, let everyone in the house know that he had, but that he was going to go back and do it right! (I believe that this was the point in the evening at which I developed a little bit of crush on Jimmie, and no, I'm not too proud to admit it.)

The encore was particularly lovely. It was just the three of them with their acoustic guitars, each sitting in front of a microphone. (Jimmie: Folk Music is music with chairs.) They claimed that this was unplanned, and given their digression on whether music or chairs came first (and Butch's assertion that musical chairs definitively proved that music came first), I believe it. Whatever idyllic work relationship these three guys might have, it doesn't preclude using a compatriot as a human shield. Jimmie innocently asked which of them was going first, and Joe, at stage right, immediately said, "Butch!"

Butch shot him a look, but seemed to take it in stride as he launched into "When the Good and the Bad Get Ugly" off War and Peace.

When Jimmie first started up, I thought he was going to do "Ripple," and I was hard-pressed to squelch a squee. (I detest the Grateful Dead, yet I have unholy affection for playing their songs and for covers of their songs, "Ripple," from One Endless Night is one of the best of the best). I apparently fixated so much on "Ripple," that I can't recall what Jimmie played, although it may have been "Long, Long Time."

Joe seems to have been as undone as I was by whatever it was that Jimmie sang, because he changed his mind about what he would play on the spot and did a Billy Joe Shaver song instead. Once again, I cannot recall which one ("Down the Road By the Way"?).

They finished with a song on which they each took a verse (and Jimmie, once again, tried to take Butch's). The crowd obviously would have hollered for them once again, but the somewhat erratic individual at the light board nixed the idea of a second encore, and we all departed with a giggle and a song in our hearts.

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