Thanks to our assiduous and designing frontman, a band that I am in once opened the Mountain Jam festival. At noon on the weekend’s Friday, we played to the professionally unimpressed roadies and festival staff mostly, and to a mountainside of waving grass that was soon to be trampled into the Catskill dirt, but not just yet – not for us.
No matter, though. There’s some well-edited multi-camera video evidence of our set, and it is hardly embarrassing. I got to wear an all-access “Artist” lanyard that really did perform like a magic holographic visa until it expired at dawn. And finally, according to the hopeful, inclusive rhetoric of band bios and EPKs [electronic press kits], I have now “shared the stage” with Levon Helm and Bob Weir, and, more importantly, with John Scofield and with Dr. Dog. And Dark Meat. I have shared the stage with Dark Meat.
The now-defunct Dark Meat came from a town of evergreen musical significance: Athens, Georgia. More Elephant 6 than IRS, they were a strange fit at this jam Mecca and with the WDST vibe generally. In fact, they were a strange fit anywhere. You see, they were a large band, one of those pell-mell, ecstatic collectives – 15, 16 pieces at the least: French horns, flutes, double reeds, a harmonium and perhaps a dudek, all scattered like psychedelic shawls and sequins around a power-trio core.
Dark Meat had been on the road for months, family-traveling in what appeared to be a late-‘60s Greyhound bus. They said that a full tank carried them 1,500 black-plumed miles, but cost them a week’s pay. They had been buying 50-cent sweatshop baubles from supermarket toy and gumball dispensers at every opportunity, melting them into post-nuke figurines, stringing them together and wearing them as totemic clan jewelry. Their faces were smudged. Some sported open sores. Nearing the end of a long tour, there was a sense of gutted vacancy about the lot of them. It was multifactoral: malnutrition, sleep deprivation, interpersonal tension, toxic exposures, bacterial load, other.
But these quasi-cultic collectives, these arkestras, they know how to use that extra mass and make a big wave when they play, and Dark Meat left a lasting impression. Arrangement is a pivotal, defining issue with large bands. You sort of have to choose between the chamber-fine and sectional side of the spectrum (and the autocracy that implies) and the ecstatic, aboriginal side – the Dark Meat side. The centerpiece of their set was a song built off a simple figure: an unfinished blues riff, a one-four-five without the four and the five. The soiled ragtag ensemble drove that riff, rode it with total, selfless commitment for 15 or more minutes. You might scoff on paper, but, in person, you eventually had no choice but to give yourself to it, for it became the only possible sound. By the end of the song and the set, you barely remembered your own name, much less your way home.
Later, in the artists’ tent, where we artists hang out, I spoke with Dark Meat’s ringmaster Jim McHugh about the growing phenomenon of the really-big-band in indie rock, its cultural resonances and purposes, its antecedents and influences (P-Funk, Sun Ra, Sri Chinmoy) and its grueling logistics and life-in-the-red financials. Large bands exist in all the genres: Symphony orchestras run like corporations because they are, swing bands with a smiling caricature of the band’s venomous leader on the front of all the music stands, folk hootenannies in which players outnumber the listeners – as if the distinction even matters. Only in the modern indie world, and on the free fringes of jazz, however, is the large group as much ideology-driven community experiment as music.
The myth takes many forms, wears many robes – sometimes literally. By the time I discovered Dark Meat, the Dallas-based outfit the Polyphonic Spree was well-established. Per usual, Texas grows ‘em bigger. That massive, many-robed, jingling pop band seems to combine Wilson- and Manson-family values. They are, in appearance at least, the most overtly cultic specimen of the big band breed, and – oddly – the band that introduced us to St. Vincent’s Annie Clark.
St. Vincent also did some time with Sufjan Stevens’ big band, with its cheeky glee club and surreal pep-squad ruse. Sufjan’s big band, like Zach Condon’s Beirut and others, is unquestionably an auteur-driven autocracy, and any patina of collectivism is pure theater. The big band Broken Social Scene, on the other hand, tells a different story: one of multiple singer/songwriters – each of whom could easily be making a go on her own – sublimating egos and relinquishing airtime in order to be part of an exemplary, sum-of-the-parts Canadian socialism. With hits.
In fact, these big bands are naturally inclined toward “isms” – toward spiritual, political and social activism. They are, after all, model alternative communities. Their message is not only equality and diversity, but also the universality of the musical impulse and the license to create sound. In Arcade Fire (one of the smaller big bands), members often approach exotic instruments with gleeful naïveté, mounting and stroking a tambura or a kemencheh in ways that might actually be illegal in certain fundamentalist provinces. The point is not to be a master nor to “express yourself,” but simply to be musically useful in the pursuit of an ensemble moment and in support of a simple song. Virtuosity is not necessarily frowned upon, but redefined. Witness, for example, Mother Falcon.
From Austin, Texas, Mother Falcon represents a fascinating new twist on the indie-collective mythology. Mother Falcon’s 17+ members are young, maybe just 18+. They are, it is said, “classically trained” players, raised under the disciplines and supervision of the serious music world. But now they have broken free. They and their classical chops have been liberated from scores and from the towering legacies of the great white male dead composers. Will they even know what notes to play? No. They will find new notes to play, and discover their own aboriginal license to make a musically useful noise.
And it works. Their first full-length, You Knew, is dynamic chamber indie-rock that references all the giants of the genre: the pizzicato grooves of Andrew Bird, the dense, pattern-study Minimalism of Steve Reich via Sufjan Stevens, the pop globalism of Beirut, the naïve ecstasies of Arcade Fire, the opaque erudition of Dirty Projectors. In keeping with the collective aesthetic, Mother Falcon doesn’t ID its leaders, preferring to be perceived as a new-model family – albeit one as kempt and pretty as Dark Meat was unruly and wild. Players swap instruments; multiple lead vocalists step to the fore. And yet, You Knew is obviously a discriminating and well-edited affair, and one suspects a hand behind the curtain, even if it will not reveal itself.
So it goes with collectives. Are they really collective, or just the advantageous ruse of an auteur? It matters little when they take the stage and make the kind of immersive, irresistible racket that only an enthused, ecstatic and really-really-big band can make.
BSP Kingston presents Mother Falcon with special guest And the Kids for audiences 18 and up at the BSP Lounge on Tuesday, January 14 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $9 in advance, $10 on the day of the show, and are available cash-only at Outdated: An Antique Café in Kingston, Jack’s Rhythms in New Paltz, Darkside Records & Gallery in Poughkeepsie and the Woodstock Music Shop. For more information, call (845) 481-5158 or visit www.bspkingston.com.
Mother Falcon, Tuesday, January 14, 8 p.m., $10/$9, BSP Lounge, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; (845) 481-5158, www.bspkingston.com.