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Jackie-O Motherfucker, Joanne Robertson, Talking Head, April 18

Jefferson Jackson Steele
MOTHERPLUCKER: Tom Greenwood strums and intones at Talking Head.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 4/23/2008

If the sorcery of improvised music is ever to be doubted, watch a master improviser come back down to the land of mortals/songwriting and go splat. Hearing Tom Greenwood's collective Jackie-O Motherfucker over the years has meant plenty of them, but at least they were spectacular splats. It's like watching a swarm: All of those bees must be doing something in relation to each other--and maybe to a bee it's quite lovely--but standing here it's just wings and an unpleasant buzz. Yes, JOMF is prone to disaster.

And it could really only be that way. Because on the flip side of that coin are some of the finer moments in experimental folk music ever. Such music doesn't sound like it comes from any place real; it's spectral folk de- and reconstructions of traditional American music--slave songs, blues, gospel--playing out like brief spells in the afterlife. When it works live, you're left staggering.

As the band has evolved over the years--lineups change almost too fast to keep up with--the music began to tend toward actual songs: structured, short, and original. One of those was 2005's "Hey! Mr. Sky," a drop-dead gorgeous five minutes of intricate gospel-folk. Last year, the band released Valley of Fire, three similarly pretty and melodic songs--though more spare and traditionally folk--and one 20-odd-minute live psych fizzle.

Last Thursday, Greenwood appeared almost by his lonesome, previewing songs from an upcoming release and glancing on JOMF's back catalog. Well, it mostly appeared to be glances at the back catalog, even if the songs were ostensibly new. Greenwood went on after a much too short set from Joanne Robertson, a British songwriter with a ringing, raspy voice somewhere between Kim Deal and Scout Niblett, and with folk-grunge dishevelment to match the latter. She makes songs simple enough--wandering, slowly picked guitar paired with downcast lyrics full of abstract romanticism, sort of a lovelorn free association that leaves you feeling terribly alone. Given that the Talking Head held a "crowd" of less than a dozen people, the effect was so much more so.

With no break in the set, Greenwood joined her onstage, and as soon as he had a guitar in hand, the room went into feedback hell. It wasn't pain exactly, but the sound was off enough to leave most of the ensuing joint set in an ugly sort of muddle.

Neither Greenwood nor Robertson appeared that energized, but it came off far worse from him. She has her voice--which is supposed to be dreary anyhow--her lyrics, and her moody guitar, but Greenwood doesn't have so much by himself. His set was flat and relatively structured; it sounded like three or four versions of old songs "Good Morning Kaptain" or "Something on Your Mind," from Flags of the Sacred Harp and Liberation respectively, both bluesy drones that revolve around Greenwood's mostly monotone half-mumble.

The two wild cards were a bit more successful: One was basically Greenwood making weird noises off sample boxes and delays, and the other was the sheer weirdness of the pair singing together, her voice a deeply affecting, simple tool and his distinctive if utilitarian, probably meant best for liturgies. It sounded like the pair was collaborating from two different, neighboring rooms.

What saved it was hearing the two play guitar together; while still marred by feedback, the combination was nice. He played an acoustic guitar, and her effortlessly plucked electric lent everything a cool airiness--it's a combination that's worked for Jackie-O Motherfucker in the past.

And, as such, it left us pining all the more so for that Jackie-O Motherfucker. Tom Greenwood doesn't function as well as a singer/songwriter, and that was the big lesson of the night--save for Lexie Mountain's new funk-noise diva band, which is for another time. Without that threat and chaos of group dynamics, the potential for Greenwood to be as great as he has been before is lost, and just being a decent singer/songwriter isn't enough. About halfway through the night, Greenwood sang, "A song can silence the buzzing of the bees," without realizing just how apt it was. You had to wonder just what kind of buzzing they could be making right then.

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