The Oddity Faire: A Mutated Mini Fest
21 Mar 2009: Riviera Theatre Chicago, IL
I got to the Riviera Theatre a little too late for the opening band, but arrived just in time to witness a man hammering a nail into his nostril. And so went my journey into the Oddity Faire. In most cases using oddity and Les Claypool in the same sentence would prove redundant but as this mini-fest was spawned from the mind of Claypool himself, how could it have been called anything but “The Oddity Faire: A Mutated Mini Fest.” The concept was hatched as a skewed take on a traveling circus, and the bill (which has been changing throughout the tour) is full of bands that Claypool described as having, “an abstract approach and they’re all very unique. This show’s going to be a slice of P.T. Barnum.” One quick glance over the bill for the Chicago show was proof enough that this was not to be an ordinary evening of music.
The Chicago lineup included Secret Chiefs 3 (who I missed), Saul Williams, DeVotchKa, and finally Les Claypool in the headlining spot. While keeping some semblance of logic and reason (think ticket sales) in mind, one would be hard pressed to pack a more diverse lineup into an evening of music than this show touted. On top of the bands, the evening was interspersed with various acts, slightly more perverse in nature, to entertain the crowd while the crews set up for the next band. Unfortunately, these sideshow moments—such as the aforementioned man hammering a nail into his nostril—ended up being rather inconsequential and felt a little flat.
Saul Williams was the first musical act to take the stage after my arrival. His entrance had all the subtlety of a botched jailbreak. It began with a blistering, piercing air raid siren that hit you high and quickly followed with a thick, throbbing bass sound that shook you to the core. It was all necessary preparation for the set. The word that comes to mind watching Saul Williams perform is intensity. His music offers no refuge or place of casual indifference. Rather, its aggression has no particular qualms with confronting you directly, regardless of how unsettling that may prove to be.
Williams is a sort of jack of all trades; establishing himself as a poet first, he is also a writer, actor and, of course, a musician. While I am not overly familiar with his albums, his live performance leaves an indelible mark. Williams blends elements of hip-hop, alternative rock, and electro music into his songs, and often employs poetic passages atop the music, spit out in poetry slam fashion. His last record, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! was a collaboration of sorts with Trent Reznor, and features Williams in the role of Niggy—an alter ego in the same vain of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. The record, much like his live show, is harsh and uncompromising and is defiant to any easy understanding or categorization. Meanwhile, the appearance offers flashes of Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic and the Humungus (for Road Warrior fans.) Regardless of your thoughts on the music, the impression it leaves sticks with you and that is probably the effect Saul Williams is aiming for.
Next on the bill was DeVotchKa, who are probably most well known for their work on the soundtrack for Little Miss Sunshine. Their music blurs the line between fantasy and reality much like the Nadsat language from which they took their name (which is from the novel A Clockwork Orange). This constructed language combines elements of both Russian and English, which makes it as good a starting point to understand DeVotchKa as any. The band hails from Denver, Colorado, but that is the last place one should look to find any musical counterpart. They infuse the sounds of Eastern Europe and Mexico, among others, to create grand theatrical pop music. Comprised of four multi-instrumentalists, their songs can contain guitar, drums, violin, stand-up bass, sousaphone, bouzouki, accordion or Theremin, while at the same time never making the use of any instrument feel excessive or unnecessary.
They kicked off their set with “The Enemy Guns”, which is the musical equivalent to a fast, rumbling drive across a crusty desert earth. In “The Clockwise Witness”, from 2008’s A Mad & Faithful Telling, lead singer Nick Urata laments, “If you win the rat race, if you come in first place, then a rat is all you will be,” while the sound of plucked violin strings drive the tempo behind him. Towards the back end of their set the keyboard intro for “How it Ends”, from the dazzling 2004 album of the same name, slowly filled the room. While the lyrics are beautiful, they are bleak and the tone is a dark one, yet the music behind it is so bold and entrancing that the song becomes vibrant and bursting to the point that it feels alive. The song is also fairly ambiguous lyrically, making it applicable to just about anything with an end, which is essentially everything. The band also handled a Velvet Underground cover, “Venus in Furs”, which was all but unrecognizable if not for the instantly recognizable lyric, “Kiss the boots of shiny, shiny leather.” Not many bands could take on such a signature song by one of the most unique bands and reinvent it all their own. Taking the mood from a dark, gritty NYC bondage club, they transplanted it into some equally dark locale within an Eastern European country at the time of the Cold War.
Consistently one of the most intriguing live bands, DeVotchKa packs an arsenal more capable than most from which to create. Their music, with the soul of a wandering gypsy and the heart of a classic piece of literature, knows no boundary. It can be ethereal, heart wrenching, haunting, and celebratory all at once.
Les Claypool then took the stage to close the evening out. Playing in front of four huge faux painted portraits, the same images that adorn the cover of his most recent release Of Fungi and Foe, each one distorted in slightly unsettling way. In keeping with this idea, Claypool himself came out in something akin to an exaggerated Cyrano de Bergerac mask, or possibly one similar to those worn in the film A Clockwork Orange, while his backing musicians wore semi translucent masks that altered the appearance of their faces. This, combined with the music in their set, stayed true to his desired theme for the night. It was like stumbling into some nightmarish scene from a 1920s carnival.
Musically the set was reminiscent of acid jazz, with an added emphasis on the acid. Claypool was backed by a superb set of musicians, which included a xylophone player and a cellist, and Claypool’s talent is unquestionable so the music itself was quite impressive. His latest record is an album inspired by magic mushrooms and was intended to be used in a soundtrack for a video game about mushrooms that come to life after a radioactive meteor. The problem is that, with the music’s theme and presentation, it feels so goofy to the point it leaves no real impact. It is so irreverent that it becomes fleeting, coming and going without any defining or memorable moment. For longtime fans this may not be the case, since Les Claypool is known for sprinkling his songs with teasers to his more popular numbers, but the more casual listener is not given much to hold on to. While the music was brilliant at times, once it had ended there was nothing to show for it, no remembrance. Les Claypool does engage the communal aspect of music so this concert was always an experience as a whole, but since the music within that experience lacks any real emotional depth, it unfortunately leaves no lasting or lingering impression and is largely forgettable.