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Published: 2004/12/01
by Jesse Jarnow

Eugene Chadbourne & Brian Jackson, Tonic, NYC, 11/30

NYC ROLL-TOP: The Delightful Dr. Chadbourne

I'm not sure when and how I first encountered the music of Eugene Chadbourne. I suspect it was a byproduct of moe.'s Camper Van Beethoven covers, which led me to the Santa Cruz psych-slackers, and – in turn – to their occasional work with banjoist/cult figure Dr. Eugene Chadbourne (you know he's a cult figure 'cause he's got a title). I stumbled my way onto a few of his albums, all wildly different. Jesse Helms Busted With Pornography was an obscene rock opera. Solo Acoustic Guitar was atonal prepared guitar that occasionally got very pretty. And In Memory of Nikki Arane was an obliterating noise freak-out with downtown squonk hero John Zorn.

In the liners to the later, Chadbourne wrote, "I used to think that like a hard-core porno film, it didn't matter when you walked into one of these concerts. Just like you could depend on people having sex no matter what the context in a porn film, you could rely on a lot of bizarre sounds being made on conventional instruments being played in really weird ways." In fact, that might be a fair way to sum up Chadbourne's career — at least, from a fan's point of view. Going to a Chadbourne show (or trying to pick one of the oodles of homemade recordings he sells afterwards) is nearly always a grab bag, and you never know quite which Chadbourne you're gonna get.

My only foray into show promotion involved bringing Chadbourne to my college, where the two dozen people I'd convinced to come out were regaled with an explosively bizarre piece called "I Talked To Death In Stereo" (or maybe it was "(in stereo)"). Either way, I felt really guilty for not getting more people than I did and never tried to put a show again and, taboot, most of my friends who did come ribbed me for months afterwards about the freaky-ass dude who looked like a wild-haired mutation of Ben Franklin and Michael Moore. As mildly traumatic as all that sounds, it also really wasn't, because I did get to see a Chadbourne show, get an up-close sense of how the hell grown men could make weird art for a living (or try, anyway), and I don’t think anybody got too screwed outta the deal. Nonetheless, given the fact that Chadbourne also once wrote a book called I Hate The Man Who Runs This Bar about his experiences with shady promoters, I was (maybe naively) a little scared to show my face at a Chadbourne gig for a while.

Walking into Tonic on Tuesday night (fittingly, after the performance had already begun) I was surprised to find both that the New York crowd was about the same size as the Ohioans and that the music Dr. Chadbourne was making was actually fairly consonant. The former was both a weight lifted (hey, if he only draws this much in Manhattan…), and a big bummer — especially because of the latter. For much of the evening, Chadbourne was right accessible, mostly due to Brian Jackson, who joined Chadbourne on piano and flute. Jackson, Gil Scott Heron's early collaborator, played it straight, filling out Chadbourne's lines with rich, melodious chords. This had the effect of giving Chadbourne something he doesn't usually have: a straight man. On a piano/guitar improvisation, Chadbourne's playing was graceful, even delicate. As Chadbourne frailed on a mountain song, Jackson accompanied on flute, eventually breaking down into a cubist duet, Chadbourne scattering dropletted notes across his fretboard, Jackson merely playing his keys percussively.

Throughout the night, Chadbourne proved – when pulled from his comfort zone of weirdness – to be a resourceful musician even without such innovations as using a balloon for a pick or his self-built electric rake. Much of the latter part of the performance was devoted to proper songs. There, Chadbourne frequently switched between strums and strangled arpeggios, his solos toggling between blissful one-note plucks and wild pick fanning. He sang "JoAnne," a country lament seemingly fashioned from a found note (reproduced on the back of Blues 2005, one of the artfully self-packaged CD-Rs overflowing from a guitar case after the gig). He sang Michael Jackson’s "Beat It" (and fairly sincerely, at that, the song revealing itself when stripped naked of Quincy Jones’ production). And he sang a beautiful version of "Old Piano" (an original? it’s uncredited on Revenge of Camper Van Chadbourne) that Jackson’s piano rendered legitimately sweet.

Chadbourne changes so much from gig to gig and album to album that it's literally impossible to have expectations about what the next will sound like. And so comes a wonderful upshot of manic unpredictability: it really doesn't matter which Eugene Chadbourne show you walk into, or even whether you’ve seen him before: there will be something to delight you.

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