On Wednesday night, as part of continued efforts to raise enough money to save Tonic, Jim O'Rourke made a rare solo appearance. O'Rourke has become the ultimate stealth musician, a nearly ubiquitous presence in new music as producer, instrumentalist, composer. A de facto member of Wilco and Sonic Youth, collaborator with Stereolab, Anthony Braxton, Smog, Tony Conrad, and far too many more to mention. Oh yeah, he also helped out with the "School of Rock" soundtrack. Anyway, O'Rourke has so many interests and so many different styles he likes to play in, it has become difficult to know what to expect on the rare occasions that he plays solo. This was a fascinatingly structured concert with as extreme a binary as exists in Gerhard Richter's work between photorealist and abstract paintings. O'Rourke began with some of his lovely Nick Drake-ish songs, fingerpicking intricate parts on an electric guitar with a touch of woozy reverb and a discreet bite of overdrive.
The third song never ended. O'Rourke just kept repeating the guitar phrase over and over, John Fahey minimalist style, as he was joined onstage by Okkyung Lee (cello), Matt Heyner (bass), Tim Barnes (drums) and Chris Corsano (drums). They began building sound around O'Rourke's guitar and moments later it was a full blown gale of ferocious, unrelenting noise, the kind of sonic outburst that rarely lasts more than a minute or two. They kept it up for over half an hour. Led into the room blindfolded, I would have had no idea what instruments were making these sounds. It was pure noise, free of context, and it was glorious.
Noise that loud and that consistent for that long becomes almost like silence: tiny changes of timbre and pitch start to register very clearly, making for fascinating listening. This piece combined the drone minimalism of Tony Conrad and the hyperactive harmonics thrumming of Arnold Dreyblatt, two of O'Rourke's favorites. All at once, without warning, the gale died down and O'Rourke was once again playing a simple, folky song, this time with spare accompaniment from the band. Musical catharsis like I've rarely experienced it before.
One of the songs that O'Rourke played, "Halfway to a Threeway," is available for free download.
Last night, it was Sean Lennon and Vincent Gallo's turn, Gallo on guitar, bass and analog synthesizers, Lennon on guitar, Rhodes and drums, both singing. They are an intriguing match. Gallo is barely technically proficient as an instrumentalist, and can push his weak voice only so far, but within those limitations, he makes sweet, touching music, as emotionally naked as his films. Lennon is a far more skilled musician, a complex harmonic thinker, and his voice is strong and flexible. At Gallo's urging, Lennon sang one of his songs, the extraordinary "Dead Meat," which is a lesson in voice leading, and as good a song as he's written. Otherwise, though, Gallo's aesthetic dominated, and the pieces were mostly static two-chord ruminations, broken music box dreams in which time stops. It was a magical set, but an unfortunately short one, and when they announced after barely half an hour of music that they had run out of material, the sold-out crowd was audibly disappointed. Lennon had a good solution: He brought up his mom, Yoko, who was sitting in the front row, to sing one song. The audience left happy.