Last Night: Jandek At Big Star Bar

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Jandek Big Star Bar April 1, 2012

The first time I saw Jandek live, I learned to leave whatever I had been expecting in another room. That was Rudyard's in April 2009, and I had been expecting (correctly or not) some kind of solo Bill Callahan-like avant-folk implosion, and got a trio playing a solid 75-minute slab of granite-thick funk.

This time I had a vague idea of what was going to happen, thanks to Ben Wesley's interview in last week's issue. This time, after three separate pieces of music across two solid hours Sunday at Big Star Bar, I still don't know what to think. But it was definitely something.

Joining Smith were three local musicians: Wesley and Mike Naus, who records electronic music under the name Vertigo Blue, both on keyboards; and SPIKE the Percussionist, who was working some kind of complicated sequencer/piece of equipment that to call a "drum machine" would not be doing justice. Before the show, Spike said that the four of them had rehearsed for a couple of hours earlier that day, but other than that the performance was completely off the cuff.

So a few squelchy keyboard warmups, an enormous bass pulse to give things some structure, and then a slamming techno beat took hold and they were off. Occasionally a playful-sounding keyboard line would creep into the mix. Much later the music resembled psychotic rockabilly surf jazz, or at least that's what I wrote down. It was pretty visceral.

This time it was easy to understand why people like Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore have such reverence for Jandek. With a distorted, metallic tone, it was fascinating to listen to what Smith was doing with his guitar - listening to him navigate whatever he was hearing in his head, you could read how he steering from one change to the next on his face. It was like listening to a side-by-side translation at the UN or something.

He interspersed these passages with a gruff three-part vocal recitation of sorts. (I wouldn't call it singing.) The first was a series of free-associative lines introduced with the words "love is": "Love is like the fading sun," "love is a bright afternoon," "love is like the birth of spring."

The music was about as far away as those pastoral, serene images in the text as you can probably imagine, until the players took a brief pause and started in on hate: "Hate is another day with you," "hate is a fence around the house," "hate is the bottom line," "hate is what I have for you." Perhaps the irony, or the point, is that to Jandek love and hate sound like the same thing.

After another pause, the third piece lasted a full hour and did not seem to have any discernible theme. From what I wrote down (and it was hard to tell what Smith was saying, especially in the third part), it seemed to be a conversation with someone: "Tell me your secrets," "just tell me," "if I told you, they wouldn't be secrets anymore." Was that a punchline?

The full house inside the languid, stuffy bar greeted the performance with a mixed reaction. After an hour or so, about half the original crowd had dispersed to the patio, where they sat discussing what they had just seen with a mixture of befuddlement and reverence. Back inside, though, a few people never stopped dancing the entire time and plenty of others stood transfixed.

It was hard to know just what to make of it. It was certainly loud. Hypnotic and tribal at times, something I would imagine hearing in Berlin, Detroit or Chicago in the early '90s, when industrial music and techno were really coming into their own.

Other than that, it was almost completely inscrutable. But maybe one clue came late in the second hour. "I don't get it...," Smith said from the stage. "That's the point."

And that is a direct quote from the man himself, my friends.

Personal Bias: It's not 100 percent accurate to say I look forward to these Jandek shows, but it's also hard to imagine that I'd pass up the chance to see another one.

The Crowd: Mid-20s to mid-60s. Not many of them were dressed like they just rolled in after church.

Overheard In the Crowd: Big Star owner Brad Moore said the gig happened when he met Sterling Smith at the nearby Petrol Station. He offered Big Star if Smith ever wanted to do anything, and the call came when Moore was on vacation walking down a street in Roswell, N.M.

Random Notebook Dump: Some quick-witted Judy's fan (or fans) put two stickers that say "Guyana" and "Punch" on the Big Star water cooler.

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