Over the course of two years Mark Growden played nearly a full year's worth of Thursdays at the Odeon Bar, and what did he get for such fortitude? Certainly not publicity, big money, respect, or star billing, but he did produce the only live album I've ever added to my permanent CD collection (not considering Tom Waits' Nighthawks at the Diner, which was recorded in a nightclub that had been set up in a studio). Live at the Odeon is, in fact, so unfaultable, so lovely, stirring, and powerful, I might completely overlook its origin except to say that the bit of banter that precedes "Fatalistic Hoedown" (with its impish 9-year-olds' chorus: "Fuckfuckshitgoddamnmotherfucker") makes the song all the more pleasurable if you know its source; and the ramshackle chorus of "Inside Every Bird" (the chorus is, in fact, the only part of the song that appears on this album) is worthy of repeated play at your next Russian-Jewish wedding party, primarily because of the Odeon staff and crowd singing, staggering, and whooping along in the background. As for the rest of the disc, there are moments, especially during ballads that Growden performs solo, that make the short hairs stand on end. The traditional "Gallows Tree," on which Growden's ululating dust-bowl howl is echoed by the feverish drone of his South Indian Sruti box, sounds as wide, rich, and forsaken as the land that spurned it. Seemingly reshaped from desert sand and broken bones, Dolly Parton's "Jolene," Pete Townshend's "Love Reign O'er Me," and Cat Stevens' "Trouble" reach their greatest depth in Growden's hands, and take him to that place, at once transcendent and firmly earthbound, that Richard Buckner arrives at often onstage but only rarely on record. With the help of the unimpeachably suave Chris Grady on trumpet, Myles Boisen on bass, and Tommy Cappel on drums, Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren" becomes a rustic plaint of Homeric proportions, and Growden's own songs, most notably "Bones" and the funny but slightly chilling "Fuck Boy," become gypsy touchstones of fun and fright frozen in amber light. Mark Growden celebrates his record release on Saturday, Aug. 16, at the Bottom of the Hill with Lonesome Organist, Loop Station, and Jes. Ca. Hoop opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8; call 621-4455. He also plays at the Cotati Accordion Festival on Saturday, Aug. 23; call (707) 664-0444 or visit www.cotatifest.com. And every Thursday in September at the Hotel Utah; call 546-6300.
I hate jokes, always have. Maybe I was scared by a funnyman as a child or mocked by my peers for missing a punch line. Whatever the reason, the convention of comedy -- that brief conversational contrivance and discomfited simulation of intimacy followed by an "unexpected" jab and the assumption that I should now express pleasure -- leaves me feeling, well, uncomfortable. Perhaps that's why I love Neil Hamburger. Despite his attempts at hyperbole -- "My thing is to make people laugh," he once brashly told The Onion -- Hamburger makes no effort to hide or evade the discomfort of his chosen profession. His observational humor is neither very observational nor very humorous, and the pathetic facts of his life are paraded across the stage without the hope or hospice of laughter. His live comedy albums, of which there have been nearly a dozen since 1993, are filled with awkward silences where only the occasional heckle or the lonely sound of ice shifting in the ice cooler reminds us that a live audience is present. As if anticipating the results of his un-jokes -- "Why did Noah take two types of each animal on the Ark with him? Because he needed triple-X footage of animals having sex for a porno Web site he was trying to set up!" -- Hamburger often signifies his punch lines by clearing his throat or emitting a melancholy noise somewhere between an absent-minded murmur and a resigned sigh; live, he adjusts his thick-rimmed glasses or smooths his oily black hair or skips the punch line entirely. Fans, of which he has a number (he's just not saying what that number is), consider Hamburger the heir of Andy Kaufman's anti-comedy legacy, while detractors insist he is the overindulged alter ego of Amarillo Records' Gregg Turlington. To me, he is no less than the physical manifestation of the Joke and the reigning king of that uncomfortable thing called Comedy. Neil Hamburger performs on Saturday, Aug. 16, at the Hemlock Tavern with Dr. El Suavo opening at 8 and 11 p.m. Tickets are $10; call 923-0923.