A Liminal Live Report: Jandek at Cafe Oto (April 10th, 2013)

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Cafe Oto is unsurprisingly packed for a rare London appearance by America’s most enigmatic singer-songwriter, Jandek, who came out of self-imposed isolation to perform his first concerts only in 2004, over 25 years after the release of his first album. Despite now putting a face to the name, Jandek remains as elusive as ever, and it’s surely as much this mystery as his – excellent – musical output that makes him such a draw. As the man himself wanders around Oto’s cramped interior, you can see the gazes of the punters follow his every step. I don’t think even Michael Gira got this much ogling when he was last here.

Before Jandek comes a set from Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, a Greek musician who uses a number of utensils – for want of a better word – to manipulate an amplified zither. Two carefully-placed E-bows draw quivering drones out of the strings, which Lazaridou-Chatzigoga then twists and contorts with sticks, bowls and other seemingly non-musical objects. I’m reminded instantly of a set I saw here not too long ago by Rie Nakajima and Angharad Davies in which the former used wind-up devices and bowls to create an ever-shifting sonic environment. While Lazaridou-Chatzigoga’s set has little of Nakajima’s playful unpredictability and environment-altering majesty, it is certainly an intriguing way to approach the zither, an instrument normally associated with traditional folk music from Greece but here transformed into something approaching an industrial drone machine. The resulting music is falteringly fragile, with many of the drones breaking apart with each new positioning of the E-bows or intrusion by a new utensil, and there is much to admire in Lazaridou-Chatzigoga’s calm precision, but at times the constant shifts become as much distracting as they are rewarding, I suppose, for the artist.

One of the great things about this new live incarnation of Jandek (studio albums are now sporadic, especially when stacked against the tower of live releases he’s put out since 2005), is that it is nigh-on impossible to predict what you will get when he performs. This is an artist for whom preconceptions should never apply, and if they are, you’re liable to end up feeling a tad stupid. It also means that every one of his aforementioned live albums are worth purchasing, because the differences between, say, Glasgow Friday and Manhattan Tuesday are remarkable, albeit tied together by his unique, atonal singing voice and skeletal song structures. Tonight, he’s left his guitar behind in favour of a gigantic electric piano and is bolstered by a sterling band comprised of regular collaborator Alex Neilson on drums, British whiz John Edwards on upright bass and Byron Wallen on trumpet and horn. The presence of brass is particularly welcome and surprising; to my knowledge (which, given Jandek’s prodigious output, is far from exhaustive), it’s a first.

Even confined to standing behind his large keyboard, Jandek cuts a singular figure: rake-thin and stern under his wide fedora hat. The music, guided ably by Neilson’s tight rolls and energetic breaks, is jazzy, with Edwards shining as he nimbly skips between deft string-plucking and moody drones. Meanwhile, Wallen laces the tracks with atmospheric horn lines as Jandek himself discreetly interjects with peppery piano notes that sound like they’re played on a vibraphone, Bobby Hutcherson-style. It’s like being transported back in time to a smoky basement jazz club in New York. This is night-time music, Jandek transformed into the weirdest of torch song crooners.

Of course, no fifties jazz balladeer would have got anywhere if they’d had a voice like Jandek’s. The man is an icon for all those who think feeling, emotion and intelligence should matter more than being able to hit a perfect C. His voice, with age, has become a strident moan, thick with feeling but rendered nebulous and intangible by his oblique yet despondent lyrics. In a million ways, this isn’t a combination that should work, but between his band’s tight musicianship and the man’s full-on dedication to his muse, it does, and then some. The tracks feel like improvisations, which they probably are to a degree, each musician listening keenly to his brethren, but at the same time there’s a definite structure, with Jandek weaving his words around Wallen, Edwards and Neilson’s minimalist tunes before taking a step back from the microphone and his lyric sheet to join in with his peppered notes. Someone once said Jandek plays instruments like a ten-year-old on his first attempt, revelling in the resultant sounds even if they’re not produced with any sort of virtuosity. It’s a fair enough description, but also one that fails to tap into the strange musicality of his work. Jandek knows what he’s doing, but maybe the rest of the world hasn’t caught up yet. When the set finishes, I’m left desperate for more, just so I can be a part of his strange, unsettling and beautiful universe a bit longer. At that point, the mystery around the man matters little, only the music, which, no matter who Jandek plays with, or how he approaches his sound, stylistically, is unique.

Photo by Joshua Harris

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