Review: Eugene Chadbourne

Eugene Chadbourne
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. All Rights Reserved

Eugene Chadbourne
(Café Oto, 3 November, 2011. review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Eugene Chadbourne has played and recorded with many significant out-there jazz luminaries – among them, Derek Bailey, Han Bennink, Toshinori Kondo, Paul Lovens, Willem Breuker and John Zorn and more recently, Marc Ribot, Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone.

He collaborated notably with the pathologically eclectic Camper Van Beethoven, and has traced his disregard for boundaries back to the radio stations he listened to when he was growing up when “there was much less separation [of genres], and that’s what I supposed musicians were supposed to do, was to go a sort of a journey … no matter how weird it was …” (from interview on Jazz on 3, November 2010).

The last time I saw him play he was in the company of ex-Zappa drummer, Jimmy Carl Black and accordionist, Ted Reichman, weaving a wonderfully subversive spell over the not yet so trendy Hoxton. At Café Oto he played solo. The only accompaniment to his voice was from his 5-string banjo and, occasionally, 6-string guitar. His large personality needed nothing else.

The two sets were marked out by Chadbourne’s versatility, the poetry of his lyrics, his quirky humour and state-of-the-art political perspective. Much of the focus was on his latest album – ‘Stop Snoring’ – according to the booklet, recorded in November, but September is the date given on his Chadula site – and sold in gloriously hand-made packaging. His only prop was a large lectern, laden with a sheaf of battered scores, which he would rifle through between songs, accompanied by comic expressions of dismay.

Chadbourne is a great songwriter and a true banjo virtuoso. His inclination to experimentation draws on his love of traditional country and bluegrass. The way he can scoop up techniques and then have them resurface in unexpected guises is part of what made his performance so engaging.

His studied changes of pace allowed him to spin from introverted desperation to trenchant political comment. He dived in to intense bouts of improvisation, using fingers and elbow on the banjo’s body, and mesmeric cascades of runs and strums, far from the formalities of conventional technique.

The power of the word is central to Chadbourne’s craft. He has a poet’s understanding of their potential for suggestion and allusion, and coaxes out imagery and narratives through unlikely, sometimes uncomfortable, juxtapositions. “Patience is abrasion, patience is corrosion, don’t expect a magic potion…”, from ‘Patient One’, early in the first set – what a relief to find a songwriter who doesn’t succumb to cliché.

For Chadbourne, narrative and reflection are perhaps the key. Following the idiosyncratic, traditional “I’d Rather be a Mole in the Ground” (“A railroad man will kill you when he can, And drink up your blood like wine.”), he tuned up as he deftly picked out a country blues, and launched into a favourite from his own songbook, ‘The Old Piano’ – “The old piano nobody can play … the old tombstone covered with weeds, the old Torah nobody can read … those old knees worn out from kneeling…”, poignant metaphors for “love that’s lost its feeling”.

Chadbourne is also a master of the cover, and was equally at home with the magic and melancholy of Sandy Denny’s ‘Who knows Where the Time Goes’ and a viscerally articulated version of Johnny Paycheck’s ‘Pardon Me, I’ve got Someone to Kill’. Mawkish sentimentality was never in contention.

His musing on the conservative underlying fear of NPR in ‘National Propaganda Radio’, “favourite target of the right wing”, was just one of the political strands woven into his repertoire. The whimsical ‘Theme of the Stargazers’ was a gentle mix of surrealism and science fiction which cast a comment on the destructive forces of technology spreading to outer space. He bowed out on Merle Haggard’s ‘That’s the news’ (“politicians do a lot of talking, soldiers pay the dues”), with a final energetic foray on the banjo pulling together the threads he’d spun in a fascinating and entertaining evening.


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