No photograph of guitarist/songwriter Duke McVinnie appears anywhere on the Home, Gallery or Bio pages of the otherwise-well-appointed https://dukemcvinnie.com. The gallery displays heavily doctored natural images. The biography serves up a seven-episode disjunctive narrative – part slice-of-memory grit, part surreal juxtaposition – much the same thematic blend that is so effective in McVinnie’s songs. If you poke around the site’s nether regions, you will uncover a few incongruously placed photos of McVinnie (for instance, on the page that contains links to other musicians’ sites), but I think that his point has been made: On this website, Duke McVinnie is not the object you come to see, but the lens that you see through.
One section of McVinnie’s site, however, is declarative and unambiguous: his credit list. It describes a career with a Left Coast lean and a bit of a bowlegged straddle between song and avant-garde. (The story involves both Joan Baez and Albert Ayler, for Pete’s sake). The credits certainly deliver the bona fides, but they feel somewhat like a concession to the business end. You get the idea that Duke McVinnie, given druthers, would rather the site be purely dedicated to the sending/receiving of his own art-saturated, multisensory aesthetic: all personality but no person.
Duke McVinnie and his group have assumed an informal position as “house band” at the Lounge at BackStage Productions (BSP) in Kingston. They are one of the flagship acts early in BSP’s promising tenure here in the Hudson Valley. And if you read the Duke McVinnie Band as an article in BSP’s positioning statement – the way that the club defines itself in relation to the area’s other full-time music venues – the keynote would be contrast. The dynamic at BSP swings as wide as music itself: literally from a whisper to a scream, with none of the compression and audience-safe middle-hugging by which some other venues limit their scope.
Contrast is the key to McVinnie’s musical door, too – but not in terms of dynamics, especially. The contrast is a textural one. His band – a fairly large group of well-known ensemble players who perform seated – generates a sound that is atmospheric, coherently multilayered, moody but propelled with great underground subtlety by two drummers. The friction enters with McVinnie’s voice: a thin, dry, quavering thing that simply cannot float with all that atmosphere and instead rubs roughly against it, irritating the surface with its stubble.
This ethereal/grit, seraphim-on-Methadone thing exerts itself on the compositional level as well. McVinnie has an ear for harmonic color and sweetness, as well as a tendency to jab at it with dissonance: sometimes just a single sour note that twists a line off its expected track, other time fits of agitated jitter and skronk that recall John Zorn (and all that John Zorn recalls). As we know from the art and the excess of, say, Quentin Tarrantino, one relished act of micro-violence can be far more discomfiting than an hour of hyperrealistic dismemberment. McVinnie has learned a thing or two about the art of disturbance from the avant-garde, but his own use of it is actually fairly modest and diplomatic, and the more striking for it.
Because he has evolved from idiosyncratic to stone-cold iconic, Tom Waits presents himself as a tempting reference point for McVinnie, but also a problematic one. Both build many of their songs off deeply transmuted American grooves with blues, jazz and Latin inflections. Both practice the art of fragmented Beat narrative, colored surreal and nightmare and with plenty of extractable one-liners. Both also are quick to reveal a romantic underbelly. “Hey Blue,” McVinnie sings in “Blue,” a song about/to an unfaithful, unstable lover, “crazy is accepted here.”
But even though it is I making the comparison, I have to oppose this reflexive invocation of the Waits name whenever the time comes to describe a noir musical vision of haunted balladry. On McVinnie’s excellent new release, Euchre, the differences between Waits and McVinnie are pronounced. First, there is more pure ether in one Duke McVinnie track than in a career of Tom Waits songs, and very little of the bone-rattle and clanking trash that Waits has ridden so brilliantly since the mid-‘80s. Before the singing commences, a McVinnie song is more likely to bring to mind some kind of ethno-Radiohead or a post-rock band like Tortoise than Waits’s Kurt Weill-by-way-of-Howlin’-Wolf clamor.
And that brings to light the biggest distinction: Under his radical and wildly influential sonics, Waits is a pure traditionalist of a songwriter. McVinnie is anything but. His forms are long, irregular and often downright progressive, and his songs, while slippery and playful, are solidly in the confessional vein.
This band is quickly becoming a Hudson Valley must-see. In an ensemble with two textural electric guitarists (McVinnie and engineer/producer-of-note Matthew Cullen), the featured soloist in the group is cellist-to-the-stars Jane Scarpantoni, who has played with something very much like everyone. I’ll skip the biggest names on her résumé and mention two comparatively minor credits that have long been meaningful to me: Workbook, the first and still-most-atypical solo album by Husker Du’s Bob Mould; and Mavericks, the sweet dBs reunion album of sorts by Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey. When I saw McVinnie, the rhythm section was comprised of Voodelic’s outstanding bassist Colin Almquist along with two fine drummers, both well-known local commodities: Tom Goss and Manuel Quintana. But great bands make one sound, not six, and this ensemble is all about that kind of Zen.
I really want to call the Duke McVinnie Band the “DMB,” because I am not at all happy with the other one. But is it really incredible to think that the other DMB might hold a stout, vigilant legal claim to those letters in that order? So let’s go with “DMV” instead. I like the association. The DMV is exactly the kind of mundane-but-mythic American environment of which Duke McVinnie would have us appreciate the poetry.
The Duke McVinnie Band will be playing at the Lounge at BackStage Studio Productions in Kingston on Friday, March 2. BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in the Uptown Stockade District. Visit www.livelive.us.