Thursday, March 1, 2012

LIVE REVIEW: The Watts Prophets & Tim Berne's Snakeoil

This week the Beast treated ourselves to two consecutive nights that, taken together, are examples of what makes live-music alternatives in L.A. so thrilling—but also so disorienting. We walked two separate worlds that were joined by only the thinnest of connective tissue: music, jazz, improvisation, freedom, protest, community.

The first was the momentous two-night return of the Watts Prophets, the pioneering trio of urban wordsmiths who all cut their eloquent teeth at the legendary Watts Writers Workshop of the late 1960s. (Started by Budd Schulberg, a Jewish screenwriter, the Workshop was an example of what can be accomplished in the city due to "unnatural alliances.") What the Beast found odd was there was nary a mention of these shows in the mainstream L.A. press. Was this not a bit of indelible L.A. musical and cultural history returned intact? (I mean, all of the original Prophets are still alive and grandfatherin’, is that not an accomplishment in itself?)

Despite the location of a venue in Inglewood that was virtually unseen from the street behind a parking lot, the event mimicked in some weird (and intentional?) way the Academy Awards that were happening two nights later. There was a photo/press station, large round tables with reserved place settings, a check-in table, a red carpet and flashing camera bulbs. (Everyone was dressed to the nines, which reminded the Beast that every time we go south of the I-10, we must dress better than a hungover video store clerk.) Even an introductory poet wondered about what happens to all of the “meat” from celebrity nose jobs—something Billy Crystal wouldn’t have had the balls to say. (Chris Rock, maybe…) One does wish the Oscars could begin this way: “Can we have permission from an elder to speak?”

After a brief tribute to the recently passed Gil Scott-Heron, an award was handed out to Raspoet Ojenke, another Workshop grad. A fuzz-bearded shaman in African garb, the poet recently suffered a stroke and was wheeled up to the stage by woodwindist friend Jesse Sharps. (Both men worked with Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra.) Referred to as “the John Coltrane of poetry,” Ojenke received his award and smiled. “This is one of the rare times when I am void of words” he said just before proving himself wrong by telling the crowd, “May the light of the Most High continue to penetrate your forehead." (Yeah!) Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets (New York’s answer to the WP) stepped onstage and subtly – if good-naturedly – teased the locals with a story of his trip to L.A. in the late ‘60s when he watched the LAPD raid an entire city block (“I realized for the first time: California is a police state!”) before launching into a poem called “Fake Eyelashes.” He finished with one of the Last Poets’ “hits,” the Coleridgean epic “N*ggers Are Scared of Revolution.” Part stand-up comedy, part street rant, part call to arms, the song is packed with many devastating lines that still burn, including “N*ggers love everybody but themselves.”

The Prophets: Otis O'Solomon (in sunglasses),
Father Amde Hamilton & Richard Dedeaux
[photo courtesy of Still Waters]

After a brief documentary film clip, where the likes of DJ Quik, DJ Shadow, Horace Tapscott, Rita Marley and the Dust Brothers sang their influence, the Prophets took the stage to a Standing O. Although grayed a bit, the old lions came on feisty and peppery, launching into the ecologically minded “Hey World” from their 1997 comeback album And Then the 90s Came. Their set also included the cheeky “Up To Me, Up To You” [sic] and a hilarious rant about cyberspace (“The Internet will set every man free…but when has a net set anything free?”) mixed with older favorites like the Nixon-era paranoia of “Everybody Watches” and the whimsical future shock of “Funny How Things Can Change.” The Beast was hoping for edgier material like “Black Pussy,” “Fucked” or “Kill” but this was not back in the day, and things once raw and shocking have been absorbed into our polite company. “Yep, I got a thug in the family,” admitted one of the poets. “Just like we all have a junkie in the family.”

What intrigued the Beast were the differences in the styles of the Poets and the Prophets. (Both shared L.A. stages at least twice, in 1969 and the mid-1990s.) Both specialize in sparking worldplay, but the former’s cadences are grittier and funkier, the obvious precursor to we now call Slam Poetry. The Prophets seemed more like a vaudeville act with brains, mixing their voices in comical calls and responses, leaning more heavily on puns and sound effects (making wind noises for the line “The world’s become so cold”), evoking the badinage of a trio of elders on the corner laughing about baggy pants and boxy hairstyles. Their link to rap, it seemed, came from the way all three would hit the last word of a phrase in unison, a practice so ingrained in modern hip hop as to have already been a cliché by 1990. But the Prophets and the Poets got there first – and that was the point of the whole evening.

In the Belly of the Whale: Snakeoil
[photo courtesy of Mary Keaton]

The next night we bopped over to Little Tokyo the following night to see another outlier, Tim Berne. The sold-out show and 45-minute long wait outside the Blue Whale proved Berne still has a lot of L-O-V-E in the Southland. (In the late '70s, the hulking, frizz-haired and frequently unshaven saxophonist was one of the first New York free players to reach out to L.A’s improvised music community when he was making his first records.) Berne was making the West Coast debut of his new bassless quartet Snakeoil, which just released its debut on ECM. And it was typical of Berne to open with a song that’s NOT on the new album. “Cornered” is a tune from Berne's 2011 collaboration with double bassist Bruno Chevillion, and started out with powerhouse player Oscar Noriega shucking jagged, halting melodies from his bass clarinet (not a mean feat). Berne lit into this musical bed with all sorts of whimsical tricks, squeezing out dog-whistle tones before sucking them back up the horn bell, then spitting them back out like kettle-steam in weird and challenging forms. With the song’s constant swings and dips, we thought this might be considered “Math Jazz.” (Punk-influenced drummer Ches Smith’s playing reminded us of Don Caballero's Damon Che.) Just as they got into the groove of a ten-minute vamp, the band abruptly STOPPED. They did this a few more times during the evening, and the jar felt through the crowd was always palpable.

Next up was “Spectacle,” a showpiece from the new album and a somewhat maddening exercise that relied on the drummer to hold things in place rather than propel them forward. Right when this was starting to get worrisome, Berne took off into a glorious Coltrane-esque solo, with all of the length and breadth that reference implies. Was it too expansive for a capacity crowd packed like sardines in this small club? Probably. If people left between the two sets, it was because Berne & Co. flogged them with so much workout sweat they needed to recluse themselves to sane oxygen. But regardless of this, Snakeoil molded and sculpted a rocking and listing treehouse of noise, with Berne and Noriega drawn close in a drunken atonal sway.

[photo courtesy of Marissa Calille]

The last piece was another not-on-the-new-album oddity, “Adobe Probe” (also the title of Berne’s septet with Snakeoil pianist Matt Mitchell). Berne and Noriega blew an unholy gale while Smith and Mitchell kept a marching-band-on-Oxycontin groove, and Mitchell’s Middle Eastern spiced piano really shined as a lyrical stopgap amidst all this chaos. After twelve minutes, both band and audience both needed a drink. For the second set, Snakeoil plastered the crowd with a mere two epics, “The Closer” and “Sketches of Pain,” the sum of which ran longer than the first set—and neither on the new album. The Beast made way for people stuck out in the waiting line, but during the second set, as our friend Greg Burk related, people were looking at one another, going “What does he think this is, New York?” Welcome Back, Mr. B.

[To read Greg Burk's take on Snakeoil’s performance, go here.]

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