Jandek Confides and Confounds at Rice

The one known as Jandek, enigmatic as ever
The one known as Jandek, enigmatic as ever Photo by Nathan Smith
The one known as Jandek, enigmatic as ever - PHOTO BY NATHAN SMITH
The one known as Jandek, enigmatic as ever
Photo by Nathan Smith
Hamman Hall, Rice University
April 21, 2017

Anytime a Jandek gig gets announced in Houston, it’s a good idea to check it out. Though the man behind the Jandek project has been performing a small handful of times per year since 2004, he remains perhaps the most mysterious and singular musician based in the city.

At least, we think he’s based somewhere near Houston. The black-clad gentleman doesn’t do interviews. It’s unclear that he does much talking at all. For almost 30 years, all we knew of Jandek was that someone was self-releasing records under that name — more than 60 of them — containing some of the strangest and most affecting music that collectors of weirdo outsider art had ever heard.

Frankly, Jandek’s music is too strange for most. It’s often atonal, conforming to no modality or genre. It’s also deeply fascinating. Each live show is an enigma. Sometimes Jandek offers up an electrified funk explosion backed by a band of local ringers. Sometimes audiences get a man and his bizarrely tuned acoustic guitar. What would we get at Rice University’s Hamman Hall theater on Friday?

A crowd of 150 or so curious, artsy types showed up to find out. Some were clearly music students at Rice. Others were probably faculty. A few looked like record collectors. Plenty plainly had no idea what to expect — all part of the fun.

Photo by Nathan Smith
A few minutes after 8 p.m., musicians appeared wordlessly on the dimly lit stage and began plugging in. Men picked up a Fender electric and a bass; another sat behind a slide guitar. A young woman took a seat behind the drums. Together, they began jamming on a droning, spacey bit of improv. Then the man from Corwood Industries, identified by many as Jandek, emerged from the wings.

The man from Corwood cuts a striking figure. He wears all black, including a wide-brim fedora. He’s an unusually gaunt individual, with narrow shoulders and a face that hints at a lot of hard stories. Unlike the previous times I've seen him, he carried no guitar. He neither addressed nor acknowledged the audience. Instead, he began to sing.

His voice is difficult to describe, harder to forget. It’s untrained, bluesy, and serious. Rising and falling, his vocal chords seemed to touch on every part of the chromatic scale and he sang plaintively about love long gone. His eyes were often shut. His fists were often balled. Early on, he touched his face a lot — almost hiding, I thought. Some very deep feelings clearly go into this music. On Friday, it sounded pretty and sad.

The band took their cues from his voice. When it rose, they added flourishes and bends. There were no time signatures at work. Only the lyrics, printed out and placed on the music stand in front of him, appeared to have been prepared beforehand.

The crowd was rapt. Between songs — or movements, whatever they were — they applauded enthusiastically. Some whooped and hooted. If the man from Corwood was pleased or offended by them, it didn’t show. When he was done singing, he retreated to a wooden chair at stage left until the clapping died away.

A few times, he traded places with the drummer. As the man from Corwood gently tapped away at no particular beat, she took over on vocals, singing the same journal-style poetry about preoccupation with a lover gone away that he had. Where his voice was rough, hers was sweet. And unlike Jandek, she was clearly enjoying herself.

Photo by Nathan Smith
Toward the end of the set, she took the microphone and reclined on the stage to delivered some fairly illuminating lines that must have been written by the man himself.

“People ask me, ‘What is your purpose for this?’” she intoned. “I scratch my head and say, ‘I just like it.’”

I liked it, too. Jandek leaves so many blanks to be filled in by the listener that it almost feels like a collaboration at times. But the music is also challenging. “Completely tuneless,” one might even say. Now and then, the slide guitar would add a country or Hawaiian tinge to the songs, if that’s what they were. But Jandek’s music is to be regarded, not enjoyed. It’s spare and moody and dark, captivated by restless absence. By the time 10 p.m. rolled around, I was rather exhausted by it, and though the audience at Rice was unfailingly polite and plainly fascinated, I know I wasn’t the only one.

Jandek played until Jandek was done. Then the figure in black turned and left the stage, leaving the cheers and applause for his band. He didn't return for a bow. No telling where he went, or why. I guess that’s why I can’t wait to see where he pops up next.

Personal Bias: Terrible photographer.

The Crowd: Rice types interested in music art.

Overheard In the Crowd: More than one sentence that began with “Both of my majors…”

Random Notebook Dump: Behind those drums, Jandek has a surprisingly heavy foot.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Nathan Smith
Contact: Nathan Smith