When Jandek took the stage in the Menil Collection foyer, what would he play? What would he do? What would he look like? Those were the questions buzzing through the crowd of art patrons, students, record collectors and weirdoes who assembled on Saturday to witness Houston's world-famous musical curiosity.
The enigmatic singer-songwriter has released 60 albums on his own Corwood Industries label since 1978 while maintaining near-total privacy, appearing only for a handful of live shows around the globe since 2004. The Menil concert was put on by Nameless Sound in conjunction with the museum's "Seeing Stars" exhibition of outsider art.
Would Saturday's performance provide a repeat of 2009's dumbfounding funk set at Rudyard's? Or something else entirely unexpected? Hundreds showed up to find out.
There would be no backing band at the Menil. After the introductory applause died away, the elusive musician appeared alone, carrying two guitar cases. And then, the inscrutable representative of Corwood sat down and spoke.
"I'd like to tell you a story," the singer said. "Once upon a time, I found a door."
Through that door, Jandek told us, he discovered a glorious sense of solitary comfort and personal belonging. Gradually, though, the door became harder and harder to find until it was lost. After falling into despair, the singer said that on Saturday he looked out the window and saw a red tree. Though familiar to him, the tree looked more beautiful than he'd ever seen before. And suddenly he knew he'd never left the door at all.
And with that, the consummate outsider unsheathed a gleaming acoustic and opened his door wide to let the packed crowd inside. Bathed in yellow by the backdrop of Walter De Maria's The Color Men Choose When They Attack the Earth, the black-clad artist sang of a love unrequited, lost and disappeared.
"He's walking the streets all over town," Jandek moaned, "and she's always on his mind."
It was profoundly strange and personal stuff. Far from the funk explosion in 2009, Saturday's set recalled a sort of folky proto-blues hammered out by early practitioners before the music had any established modes or rhythms. Many of the chords he found on his oddly tuned guitar seemed to be somehow composed exclusively of blue notes.
"I know I'm selfish/I know I'm cold," Jandek sang. "But I love you in my own way."
Those lyrics were ostensibly sung to a lover long gone, but they could have easily been directed toward his devoted fan base. Though famously uninterested in personal attention or publicity, Jandek was no shrinking violet on stage. The public performance of music this harsh and unforgiving is not an act of shyness. The man in black bared his scars without blinking, infusing his singing and playing with a commanding authenticity.
More than once, the performer held the sound hole of his guitar right up close to his face as he played, as if the instrument was whispering private counsel. The dissonant and unstructured pluckings he produced were at once intriguing, alarming, and more than a little teeth-rattling.
The solo musical suite could have been rehearsed for weeks in advance or made up on the spot. Jandek's style makes it difficult to tell, and Lord knows he ain't saying. Through eight movements over a little more than an hour, the man from Corwood spun a tale of loss, depression and acceptance using a musical vocabulary all his own.
"Oh blues, how I know you," he sang. "You come back again."
And when his song was over, the guitar case slammed shut again. Jandek left the stage, wordlessly, without looking back. With any luck, he'll find that door again soon and his hometown will see him once more.
Personal Bias: Fascinating as his music is, an hour or so of Jandek is about all we can take.
The Crowd: Curious onlookers.
Overheard In the Crowd: "I've seen him around town. One time I saw Jandek eating at Hobbit Café!"
Random Notebook Dump: Who brings a baby to a museum to see Jandek? And WHY?