Jim O’Rourke, Tonic, NYC- 2/23
NYC ROLL-TOP: Three Ways to a Halfway
"If he plays the noisy shit, I'm outta here," one friend warned before entering Tonic for a benefit by Sonic Youth noisemonger/Wilco producer/all-'round indie demi-God Jim O'Rourke. Indeed, the Chicago native's catalogue has veered across the map in the past decade, from ambient excursions like I’m Happy, I’m Singing, and a 1, 2, 3, 4 to meticulously dry knob-twiddling for Wilco to the lighter than air orchestral grandeur of Bad Timing to the angular dream-chords of Gastr Del Sol to the impeccably calibrated smart-pop of Insignificance. The benefit for the endangered avant-venue was billed simply as "Jim O’Rourke," with no hint as to which project might be elbowing its way through the packed crowd to the low platform at the far end of the room.
The gear onstage — two drum kits, a cello, an upright bass, and a chair/microphone — seemed to confirm rumors that the Brooklyn transplant would be playing music from his intricately arranged Drag City releases: straightly brilliant song-songs from his three DC song-oriented releases. And those rumors were hardly squashed when the diminutive O'Rourke — in his usual blazer/bedhead/dapper toadstool attire — sat down with a guitar. Self-effacing in the extreme, apologizing profusely for what he couldn't remember, O'Rourke opened his performance with a miniature set of solo vocal numbers. The reverent crowd went nearly silent, straining to pick up each nuance of O'Rourke's thin, laconic voice, craning their necks to see the sitting singer through a jungle of heads.
His John Fahey-influenced fingerpicking — filled with odd, complex chord voicings and rolling internal rhythms — made the perfect bed for solo renditions of his viciously devastating songwriting, including the supremely creepy-ass sex-with-the-handicapped title track of 2000's Halfway To A Threeway EP ("I know that you can’t roll away…"). "Life Goes Off," the final track from 2001’s Insignificance, is as pointed and flat-out narsty as any of Dylan’s mid-‘60s surreal put-down songs (and one of the milder numbers on the album). "I don’t recall your face no more," he sang, "but you left behind a mask." On disc, the song builds to a monumental two-drummer crescendo — all neatly snapped rhythms working in precise machination — and abruptly ends. As O’Rourke worked the song to a close at Tonic, the drumstools were indeed filled, and the music accelerated rapidly from a singer-songwriter lament to an unmitigated two trapkit/bass/cello/guit-box freak-out that kept going and going.
And going and going and going and going and going and going and going…
...and going for maybe, oh, 25 minutes? It's hard to say, 'cause time lost much meaning during the noise explosion. Occasionally, it seemed as if O'Rourke was conducting the improvisation. With the exception of a very purdy bell-driven quiet interlude in the middle, the ensemble continued at full blast, rarely varying their attack — oddly monochromatic for the usually dynamic-conscious O'Rourke. Audience members squirmed and sent text messages. Some left. My friend who threatened to leave wandered out to the lobby and read The Onion. Just around the fourth time I thought "this couldn’t possibly go on any longer," it didn’t. O’Rourke’s distinct fingerpicking emerged from the squall, and built. He began singing the single, repeated lyric to "Women of the World," the nine-minute exercise in a color that opens 1999’s Eureka. He stopped after only a few repetitions. Given the perversity of the proceeding 25 (or so?) minutes, the song’s terminus was a nice punchline to a particularly O’Rourke-like joke, just as funny as any of his lyrics, and just as singular as O’Rourke remains