Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Bob Reuter

" the heart of the city, where the alligator roams..." - Nick Lowe

Like a lot of people who say they're "from" St. Louis when meeting people from other places, I never actually resided within the city limits. I worked there for many years, though, at a job that took me all over the city. I spent a lot of time in the car listening to KDHX, St. Louis' community radio station and in a very real way one of its most important cultural institutions. Bob Reuter's Friday midday show, "Bob's Scratchy Records", was a highlight of the week whenever I got to hear it. On radio, he was a live wire, an open circuit, an improvisor, drawing on the traditions of "wild man" hipster DJs of the '50s and '60s spliced with ol' time "put your hand on the radio" preachers. There was no strict musical format. He'd play r'n'b, garage, gospel, country, rock, soul, blues, but much of it resided at the edges, the margins where musical boundaries, and even those of race, gender, and sexuality, became permeable and blurred into each other. His pledge drive shows, far from being a reason to tune out for a week, were required listening. You might get a little concerned as Bob would work himself into a frenzy to meet his fundraising goal, sometimes seeming to teeter on the edge of sanity. Even the playlists he'd email out were hugely entertaining (and educational), including photos and commentary for many of the artists.

When I read about his death at age 61, from a fall down an elevator shaft at the loft he was just moving into, it made no sense, came out of nowhere, seemed random and cruel. In recent years, he seemed to have attained a sort of elder statesman status in the hipper segment of the St. Louis community, earning respect for his photography, music, and writing without becoming respectable. When I heard the news, I thought of Bob Cassilly, another of the vital creative forces of St. Louis who died an untimely, accidental death in 2011. Two of the essential St. Louisans gone in two years time.

I didn't know Bob. I interacted with him briefly only a few times, by email to comment or ask a question about something on his show or when he was working the door at Frederick's Music Lounge, one of the great lost music venues (owned by another key Southside figure, Fred Friction). I saw him perform a few times, solo and with his band, but it was his radio presence and his work as a photographer that interested me most.

His photography, collected beautifully in the book Light Fuse and Run, is about as "analog" as can be. The pictures are the glorious sum of accumulated imperfections: Bob's own as a self-taught photographer, those of the medium itself, and the often rough-around-the-edges people and places he documented. It's noir, beat photography, sexy and dark, but not affected or touristic. Like some of William Eggleston's best work, the photographs are taken by a man deeply familiar with the places and people he's shooting but with enough distance to turn them into art. Just as I can't visit Memphis or Mississippi without seeing those places, at least a little, through Eggleston's color-saturated vision, Bob's gritty black-and-whites have permanently altered the way I look at and think of South St. Louis.

The last aspect of Bob Reuter's talent I came to know was his writing. I finally started reading Tales of a Talking Dog, published last year, after hearing of his death this week. Like many of my favorite memoirs - Harpo Speaks and Errol Flynn's My Wicked, Wicked Ways come to mind - it's basically a collection of episodes and anecdotes. The stories from Bob's childhood, growing up in a never-prosperous section of a city that was well into its steep decline, are funny, sad, strange, sometimes disturbing or shocking. Racial tension must've been pervasive, often breaking out into outright violence. The young Reuter was drawn to music and fascinated by the black culture that he was in close proximity to but in many fundamental ways totally excluded and isolated from. The colloquial writing style seems like an attempt to capture his own voice as a storyteller, and does so effectively, at least for someone who was familiar with that voice from the radio. His stories are pieces of a puzzle that can never be finished, as a life and a city can never be fully comprehended. I suspect that when I finish Talking Dog I might start another book that's been on my shelf for a while, "Ain't But a Place", the Gerald Early-edited "anthology of African-American writings about St. Louis". St. Louis is a complex, often strange place, requiring multiple perspectives to even begin to understand it. Bob Reuter contributed in a big way to that understanding and, even though he left too soon, we're lucky that he shared as many of his stories, songs and pictures as he did.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Catch-All to Catch Up

Catching up after putting the blog on hiatus for a while, here are some more or less recent albums, books, and live performances I've enjoyed:

Eric Revis' 11:11 - Parallax
Revis doesn't have too many recordings as a leader, but he seems to be picking up the pace. He's already followed up this late 2012 release with a trio album (feat. Kris Davis and Andrew Cyrille). I haven't heard it yet but did see the group at the Vision Festival. I was impressed, but not as overwhelmed as I'd been by the group on Parallax (Nasheet Waits on drums, Jason Moran on piano, and Ken Vandermark on reeds) when I saw them a few years ago at Jazz Gallery. Tarbaby (Revis, Orrin Evans and Nasheet Waits) also has a new record out - not the Frantz Fanon-inspired project I heard them preview at Le Poisson Rouge with Lake and guitarist Marc Ducret, but Ballad of Sam Langford, dedicated to the early 20th-century boxer (a native of Canada later known as the "Boston Tar Baby") and featuring Oliver Lake and Ambrose Akinmusire (after Miles made the connection, it's hard to imagine a boxing-themed album without trumpet). I just got it but haven't heard enough to record any impressions yet. I've spent more time with Lake's most recent big band record, Wheels, and it's a definite winner. The saxophonist (and painter and poet) seems to be more prolific than ever at age 70.

Some of my favorite moments on Parallax occur when at least one member of the quartet is playing the melody or keeping a straight rhythmic pattern going while the others go off/out, a sound that I've heard in other Revis-Waits projects and in the Bandwagon's music. I've discussed my love of Waits' drumming before, and this is a good album to hear the range of what he can do. There's a good mix of tunes here - some that feel more composed, some more freely improvised, and a couple of really strong, spirited interpretations of early jazz pieces by Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton - sequenced with a good flow that avoids fatigue and invites repeat spins.

Volumes have been written elsewhere and everywhere about Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City, so I'll just say that it's the best thing they've done (and I enjoyed their first two quite a bit) and one of the best things I've heard all year.

Two of my favorite recent discoveries in 20th-century music are closely related: Lou Harrison's Piano Concerto (I've mentioned the recording with Keith Jarrett, for whom the piece was written, before but I can't recommend it enough) and John Luther Adams' For Lou Harrison. The Callithumpian Consort recording of the Adams piece has some helpful liner notes - just understanding the concept of tempo layering in one of the two alternating sections of the piece gave me something to listen for and latch onto. As I understand it - imperfectly I'm sure - different instruments play groupings of 4, 5, 6, or 7 notes to the measure against a steady, slow 4/4 beat. There's a clear "one" to orient the ear, so that the different groupings are always audible even as the overall texture becomes more dense and complex. The other section is quite beautiful, with rising glissandos that sound like the whole ensemble is being played like a harp by a giant hand. (A much more detailed discussion can be found here.) The piece works as something to immerse yourself in and lose track of time, but the complexity and slight but constant variations certainly reward more attentive listening. It was reported that For Lou Harrison received a negative audience reaction when it was performed at the recent Ojai Festival, but in my experience even a slight effort to understand what Adams is doing will be repaid many times over.

I just finished reading two music memoirs back-to-back: White Bicycles, producer Joe Boyd's book about the '60s, and Apathy for the Devil, NME writer/notorious London scenester Nick Kent's year-by-year account of the '70s.  Surprisingly, Boyd, who made his name working with sound, not words, comes across as the better writer, but Kent certainly has a way with an anecdote and tells his sometimes squalid tale with verve.

Eyebone, a trio of Nels Cline, Jim Black and Teddy Klausner at Shapeshifter Lab reminded me how much I enjoy a loud, overdriven electric piano sound (something that was also in full effect at The Lilys' blazing Chickfactor set at The Bell House). All three played with great intensity, and there was a nice moment when Cline stopped playing, put down his guitar, and walked over to turn up Klausner's amp - a bit of on-the-fly, onstage mixing to bring the keyboard to the fore, from which point the music took flight.

The big guitar event of the year so far was the trio of Cline, Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot at Le Poisson Rouge. As a fan of all three, I was fascinated by every nuance of their interactions. They played as a trio, a quartet (with Shahzad Ismaily on drums), and as three different duos. Much of the set seemed improvised, as the three created spontaneous, interlocking parts and each in turn nudged the music in different directions. They covered a lot of sonic territory, including '60s-ish jangle and Hank Williams - the Frisell-Ribot duo played "Cold, Cold Heart", including a verse of vocals from Ribot. Frisell and Cline were on solid-body electrics for most of the set (though Cline played some lap steel), while Ribot did some tunes on acoustic and hollow body electric and generally contributed the most bluesy and angular elements to the mix.

Tim Berne 7 @ The Stone
The high point of my second time seeing this beast of a group (video of some of their performances can be found online) was an almost literally unbelievable half-hour-plus performance of Berne's super-intricate/complex "Forever Hammered". I couldn't fully grasp the structure of the piece, but it seemed to fully exploit the sonic possibilities of the group (an important part of their sound is the combo of Dan Weiss on drums and Ches Smith on vibes and other percussion). I don't know his catalog front-to-back, but this piece seems like some kind of milestone for Berne as a composer - pianist Matt Mitchell, on Twitter, called the TB7 gig "possibly the craziest music I've played with other people" - and I hope it has been or will be recorded in a studio soon.

I saw a couple different iterations of Steve Coleman and Five Elements at The Stone and Shapeshifter Lab. Both were excellent sets. The larger group at the Stone demonstrated Coleman's mastery of densely complex, layered rhythms. Coleman and other band members switched between their main instruments and hand cowbells, setting up new (clave-derived?) rhythmic patterns on top of funky bass-and-drum grooves. There was a lot going on, but the set was engaging on multiple levels, from the physical to the intellectual. The quartet version (w/ trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson) at Shapeshifter put the focus more on Coleman's prodigious improvisational imagination as a soloist. The quartet closed the set I saw with a flourish, taking the final tune at a daredevil tempo.