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Published: 2005/05/01
by Jesse Jarnow

Sun Ra Arkestra and Dub Trio, Knitting Factory- 4/24

NYC ROLL-TOP: When Angels Speak of Dub

In the strange trenches of the New York City club scene — avant-garde clubhouse Tonic's shut-down narrowly averted, punk-Petri-dish-turned-tee-shirt-stand-with-music CBGBs closure ominously looming — the spring of 2005 might go on record as the first time in recent memory that the Knitting Factory wasn’t in obvious danger of going under. Why, they even have new bathrooms! Without noticing, I’ve found myself there more and more often, and inventive pairings like upstarts Dub Trio with the relentlessly working Sun Ra Arkestra are exactly the reason. It’s an instantly logical combination — as far back as 1963’s When Angels Speak of Love, the Arkestra luxuriated in the same deep-zone reverb as King Tubby and company — but one that still seems fairly improbable.

At least several of the old-school tucked-in-tee-shirt jazzbos seemed at least mildly appalled by the Dubs, who were formed from the remains of Actual Proof. During their opening slot, they demonstrated a beautiful sense of the space required for dub, and nailed some thoroughly roots-heavy grooves (though the breaks'll get tighter as they keep playing). Like Antibalas and the music of Fela Kuti, Dub Trio have a assigned themselves a tough mission in finding an original voice in an iconic style that grew from very specific cultural conditions.

Often, Dub Trio does this by injecting guitar-heavy drama like thrashing punk changes, heavy effects, and vaguely electronic jams (this is where the old-timers' shock seemed to emanate from). While this seems a little odd — and, frankly, sometimes too much — in a band whose name pays tribute to a genre whose sole purpose is to be chiiiiiilllllll, the music almost always reverted to that same echoing ether. The three — bassist Stu Brooks, guitarist DP Holmes, and drummer Joe Tomino — are still getting their shit together. Ah, but what shit! Hopefully, these dudes’ll earn themselves their well-deserved audience.

While Dub Trio is clearly at the beginning of a journey, it's hard to tell exactly where the Sun Ra Arkestra is. Sun Ra himself returned to Saturn (so to speak) in 1993, and principle players June Tyson and John Gilmore died in 1992 and 1995, respectively. That may seem a daunting number to lose, but the Arkestra still number around 20 strong, and have a capable director in legendary saxophonist Marshall Allen, Ra's right-hand man and reed-leader since the late 1950s.

Watching the Arkestra assemble on stage in their sparkly science fiction/Egyptian arts-and-crafts get-ups is about as literally life-affirming as you can get. Allen emerged with bulging files of sheet music under his arm almost a foot deep (seriously, yo), making his way to his front-and-just-off-center nook in the band's frontline, as dazzling Arkestrans filed in a seemingly endless procession out of the sidehatch. The 80something Allen (and others) still live and work in the communal Philadelphia house occupied by Ra and the Arkestra for many years. (Last time I looked, you could still look in the Philly phonebook under "Sun Ra" and find a number.) Now that’s a sense of mission.

The band struck up a crescendo, and Allen swung them hard, pulling vivid orchestral color from the ensemble, which included something like six saxophones, a few trombones, some trumpets, a keyboardist, a guitarist, a trap drummer, an upright bassist, a percussionist, and a vocalist (it was kinda hard to see to the back of the Knit's narrow stage). Allen soared confidently on top — mighty spry for an old guy — turning in peeling, flighty melodies that evoked kites slo-mo jerking in zero gravity. The Arkestra was simultaneously taskmaster tight and infamously loose. Lines slopped on top of one another with a punk rock joy, but — where it counted — the band moved together, mighty and weird. "If we came from nowhere here, why can't we go somewhere there?" they chanted, dropping into bottomless big band funk.

With psychedelic aplomb to spare — aided by Allen on his chaotic E.V.I. (electronic valve instrument) — the band pulsed through post-Ra numbers like Allen's "Cosmic Hop" and vocal tunes like "They're Peepin'." As always, the best music came when they hit the open spaceways. During one number, several songs into the set, they filed offstage and wandered about the crowd, through the space, and under the balconies, blowing and squonking in a moving sound sculpture. Sitting in one's seat, one got a sense of it as it moved by, parts moving in and out of the mix. The second half of the set was more subdued — more bluesy numbers — though just as inspiring. To close their set, they moved into the crowd again, singing a simple melody. The crowd sang along, clapping against it in a two-beat pattern. The band faded, smiled, and was done.

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