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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Purcell Rooms, South Bank Centre, London, 7th May 2006
Serge and I have recently been having a little spat about asparagus. You know, that lovely gloriously green and highly seasonal vegetable that grows mostly in Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Norfolkshire, which we eat by the plateful at this time of year, lightly boiled and with lashings of salted butter. Serge tells me they grow it in France too, but it’s an anaemic slug-like colour, overcooked and eaten with some fancy sauce from Holland (note from the editor: more about that in my comments below!). I’m about as clear as to how we’re going to resolve this impasse as I am how to start this review. Not only did Marc Ribot and his band spend most of the evening subverting the notion of the song (apparently they’re now called ‘pieces’), they also subverted the notion of concert (yes, I know they started at 7.45 and finished about two hours later, but that was almost as close to form as it got), and in the process subverted the shape of my review. But here goes …
Even if you don’t know it you’ll be familiar with Ribot. He’s the fantastic guitarist behind many of Tom Wait’s best albums, particularly those of recent years. You may, as a consequence, have come across his wonderful album Y Los Cubanos Postizos, a tribute to the Cuban guitarist Arsenio Rodriguez. Now had you bought tickets for this gig on the basis of this then you would have made a big mistake. For Ribot’s day job is ace New York free-jazz guitar maestro, a huge admirer of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler (this it had to be said, confused me somewhat – an album as a tribute to one of Britain’s great philosophers? But there you go…), and a man at the vanguard of pushing the guitar (and associated instruments) as far as it can go. He’s uncomfortable with the description ‘avant garde’ (he claims he would play dance music all the time if he could), but it certainly seemed like a fair way to describe the evening (no dance music).

Marc Ribot
And he was certainly playing to a painfully highbrow heavy duty muso audience, all carefully eyeing each other up as they weighed their relative musical expertise and knowledge in case there was a showdown at the end of the night. The ones that stayed that is. There was a steady trickle of folks heading to the door during the first half hour or so, and I’m still convinced that the guy who attempted to climb onto the stage waving his arms was trying to shut them up (the photographer thought he was trying to conduct).
The band is Ceramic Dog, or as we would say in Glasgow, Wally Dug. Ribot seems to think this is the “ultimate kitsch object”, but I’d certainly be careful saying that in Glasgow. It’s also a “free/punk/funk/experimental/psychedelic/post electronica collective” featuring Ribot on guitar, Shazad Ismailly on bass, and Chess Smith on drums and percussion. “Sonically dense” was a description I read somewhere. No shit! Some of it is so dense it’s like fighting your way through a jungle. But it’s worth the struggle. The evening is both exhausting and exhilarating. It begins in fairly harmonious style, very repetitive melodies (played I think, not tape loops) almost in a Bill Frisell style, with delicate and carefully crafted percussion from Smith and soft low bass from Ismailly. From that we went to ‘Hatred and filth’ (yes, this one was introduced and had a title), which, according to my detailed notes, was ‘like Ghost riders in the Sky on acid – all fractured and frenetic’. I also noted the Black Sabbath moment (the night was full of musical jokes of one sort or another) and wondered if it wasn’t all a little more conventional than we might imagine, a thought that has stayed with me, despite the ‘avant garde’ tag. From what I could gather we had ‘a piece’ about intellectuals (it sounded as though that was what was being chanted), a bosanova ‘Todo el mundo es kitsch’ (with a witty Rolling Stones joke), a spoken song ‘When we were young and we were freaks’, another heavy rocker ‘Erotic auto’, peppered with snatches of ‘Born to be wild’ and other motoring tunes, and a ‘protest piece’, ’99 and a half won’t do’, during which Ribot expressed his considerable frustration at both George Bush and that nice Tony Blair’s role in the Iraq war. Ribot obviously takes these sort of issues very seriously (have a look at this interesting website) but to be frank his political interventions in terms of shouting, half-singing, and chanting didn’t really get much beyond a schoolboy level of discourse – best to let the guitar do the talking Marc.
And what a guitar – Ribot’s playing is inspired – delicate, destructive, deconstructed and deeply imaginative. Ismailly plays bass, keyboards, percussion (various) and an empty water dispenser. He’s intense, crouched over his instruments, and yet periodically surprisingly humorous – perhaps it’s the bottle of J&B that he takes occasional pulls from as the night goes on. He shares the J&B with drummer Smith, whose painstaking attention to detail is totally absorbing – even when he’s changing the batteries in one of his gizmos – when he lets rip he’s all elbows and flying hands. The band are as tight as a knot, and they’re obviously having fun.
So after a return to the stage for two ‘pieces’ as encore (not really that subversive after all) we left the hall reeling, hardly aware that we’d been in there for two hours, so engrossing was the music. But I did have to ask, ‘what’s the big idea?’. For all the thought that had obviously gone into the music, and the rather prosaic chants and occasional lyrics, I’m dammed if I could really see anything that was really cogent leaping out at me.
So I was forced to conclude that they did it simply because they could, which in truth was good enough for me. - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate, asparagii by Nick and Serge)

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