New Ink NO.1 : Peoples Liberation Big Band
Last week, walking across a park lot, I noticed the ground suddenly littered with golden flecks. Looking up, I saw them: honey locust are started to change. It’s my official start of fall – not the social designator of Labor Day, or the placement of the sun for the autumnal equinox – but first blaze of color standing out from five months of green on green. It’s the ping of crickets suddenly loud now that the cicadas have burrowed down, and the last vestige call of the tree frogs.
This summer, and continuing into the fall, the performances I attended were hella awesome and felt commemorative. I even went so far as to rashly post on Facebook that, after the PLBB’s 5th Anniversary show at the recordBar, I now wanted a tattoo, though at the time and slightly drunk I couldn’t fully examine the urge.
I still don’t have a tattoo, but it’s that feeling of lasting foreverness that makes me write what I write, so I can return to that euphoria, relive it again after it’s over, to somehow relate and define the ethereal experience of live performance.
So I’m going to start a new series here on Proust called New Ink & Notable Performances. The series will be about the shows that make me want some permanence, something that would be tragic to just fade from here tomorrow. Something more holistic than he did/she sang/they danced descriptions and value judgments. Even when I’m not reviewing, I usually lurk in the crowd, scribbling into my notebook about the essence of the experience, beyond the musical aspects, the smells and extraneous sounds, asides that have no place in a formal review, and fellow audience observations.
Part of the reason I take notes is because I have a horrible memory for important details, like names, and an excellent memory for even more important details, like movement and what the color of the sky looked like, and I somehow have to coalesce what my mind latches onto naturally and what may be pertinent later.
I now have a backlog of five or so exceptional performances (and the anticipation of a few more coming up) from the last few months. Hopefully I’ll get a few hundred words of essence organized every week(ish) if I can and lock in a little permanence.
Let’s start with the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City’s 5th Anniversary show on July 7th. I got there half way through, but they weren’t stinting in the audience department. A fine preview article in The Pitch had something to do with it, I’m sure – if “sophisticated dissonance” doesn’t attract your attention I don’t know what will – but also wow – FIVE YEARS!
Five years of getting some of the finest musicians in KC to come out, rehearse for free weekly, because the experience is so darn stinking fun. Five years of building an audience of both KC’s esoteric elite and bar-attending crowd. Five years of playing in a venue with the nicest staff, that serves up one of the best menus in the city, including a pretty exceptional Reuben (and I am a Reuben snob). Five years of Super Bowl Half Time Show parodies. Of silent films and dance collaborations. Of killer improvisers, of arrangements of Zorn and Cage, of Conway, Cox, McKemy and Lawless, etcetra, compositions. Of community and society and good musicianship and nearly complete chaos and lots and lots of fun.
I loved how Brad Cox kept shouting before every piece, in this cheeky shucky-darn demeanor he’s perfected: It’s A Greatest Hit! I loved how many people cheered and whooped when the last piece was announced, and consequently, how many people launched into a raucous, enthusiastic, beer and whiskey fueled rendition of “The Playful Kitten.”
They had another great performance, the start of something really special when PLBB concertized re-conceived film scores to a trio of silent motion pictures from early cinematic innovator Vladislav Starevich, as the October 2013 edition of the ArtSounds series (a dual endeavor between the Kansas City Art Institute and UMKC’s composition department).
The musical elements – a collage of quotes, foley effects, and improvisations – were composed and arranged by Jeffrey Ruckman and Brad Cox, intrepid leader of the ensemble. Brad gave a few brief opening remarks regarding the films’ general plots and historic significance. My favorite referenced the title cards in the version of The Frogs Who Desired a King: “Those of you who read French will enjoy it very much.”
The cinematic effects of these films from 1911, 1922 and 1933 – that a contemporary reviewer thought were actually trained insects – are still astounding, even in our day and age of CGI. It’s stop-motion capture with taxidermied animals and puppets; he has them painting, canoodling, playing instruments, dancing, running, fighting, even riding a bike – simply amazing. The films are witty and socially pointed and pathetically empathetic, just like movies such as Up and Toy Story 3 are today. Technology has changed, but human emotions haven’t altered a wit.
Ruckman is a master of quotation and used these skills to orchestrate some fun allusions during The Cameraman’s Revenge, the sordid tale of adulterous stag beetles. The whole audience laughed when they recognized OutKast’s Hey Ya during the fight scene between the beetle and the grasshopper, just one of the cleverly planned touches in an otherwise chaotic event, ending with the honk of a bicycle horn. And, hey, who doesn’t love a little film-within-a-film action, as we watched the bugs cozy up to watch a bugy movie. So meta.
Brad coordinated the other two scores and they exhibited his style, too, with so many fun noises amidst the pulsing cacophonies! My man Sam was sweating it out over on the drumset-multi-mallet explosion station, complete with thunder sheet. Everyone had a couple and a half of instruments, including my fave: “WE ARE DEALING WITH NONE OTHER THAN THE KAZOO*.”
I loved how both films included music sequences, the amphibian marching parade in Frogs and the debauched band of debris in The Mascot, this sad, triumphant tale of a toy puppy. Anything that starts out with a mother’s tear that turns into a life-starting heartbeat is going to know what strings to pull, ya know, with a slippery score that included a Theremin-tango, slide guitar, trombone portamento, and Dies Irae quotes in a macabre triple-time. And, of course, lots of kazoo!
*Raymond Lewenthal, “Toy Symphonies & Other Fun“ LP.