Thomas Carnacki Quartet
Saturday, July 20, 2013
The Night Light, Oakland
Better than: Conversations in bars about television shows.
On Saturday at the upstart Oakland club the Night Light, a crowd scuffled up a narrow staircase and entered a dim interior. A projector splattered menacingly animated, black-and-white line drawings across one wall. The stage to the left was cluttered with keyboards, a trap kit, and amplifiers -- a rock band setup. But closer inspection showed a clutter of wires, oblong instrument cases, pages of sheet music, a Tupperware container, and some little tools. Next to the visuals, a white banner looming above a display of artwork and LPs proclaimed "Evangelista." Emblazoned there, the band name looked somehow spiritual and revolutionary.
In the 1990s, Carla Bozulich led Los Angeles rock group the Geraldine Fibbers. Following its dissolution, guitarist Nels Cline joined Wilco, while member Jessica Moss joined the Godspeed! You Black Emperor-related project a Silver Mt. Zion. Bozulich had already been a member of several groups on the fringes of industrial and performance art, and struck out solo at that point. More recently, Bozulich adopted the moniker Evangelista, which she tours and releases records under with a rotating cast of backing musicians from her new European home base. The first of two rare shows Stateside, Evangelista's performance Saturday night was touted as one of her last domestic appearances for a long time.
Bozulich and five other musicians took the stage -- three women and three men draped in black, red, and gray. With no introduction, the band began the aptly titled "Hello, Voyager!" The instrumentalists conjured woozy, seasick atmospherics. Drummer Ricardo Esway's snare buzzed like flies; multi-instrumentalist John Eichenseer let a horn wail; guitar strings creaked like the aching planks of a ship just before calamity. Bozulich projected lines like "Rubble and blood! Rubble and blood!" as she compulsively stomped and bounded across the stage. She gripped a small drum strapped around her neck. Twirling around, mallet raised to the heavens, Bozulich's band fiercely struck down on her lead, bringing violent punctuation to the dystopic opener.
Throughout the set, Bozulich contorted her face, wound up her body, and cut loose all spirit and conviction through her words, which carried a poetic weight. Catching odd bits of her lyrical imagery during the set enriched the experience, but Bozulich's physical intensity was the evening's consummate force. Her voice was at times anguished, chilling, or melodic on the verge of cracking, but always impassioned.
Apocalyptic ambiance was a theme of the set. For the more nebulous songs, the talent of Bozulich's ace backing band was fully displayed. Songs were like skeletons erected around her words, subject to the rattling and clatter of each instrumentalist through improvisation and intuitive interplay. Often, both Eichenseer and Esway thumped tribal rhythms on the deep floor toms, the strength of each strike seemingly calculated. While honoring the rhythmic motif of a given passage, the percussionists deliberately strayed from the beat for effect. Local guitarist Ava Mendoza's solos relied on serpentine leads restlessly traversing the neck in search of the most expressive notes. For the ironically titled "Smooth Jazz," Evangelista played what sounded like malfunctioning industrial machinery in the midst of a phantom power surge. Instruments that minutes before seemed restrained were now berated and throttled to evoke dissonant clamor.
Despite Evangelista's gloom, brooding minimalism and abrasive barrages, Bozulich became increasingly candid throughout the more than hour-long set. As if deliberately filtering out feeble, more easily intimidated attendees before lightening up, it took a while before Bozulich began cracking jokes. The show was being filmed, so Bozulich implored the audience to scream loudly after the last song, although the comical request was hardly needed. Bozulich sang the most damaged "Happy Birthday" ever to a friend in the audience, and then produced a cake bearing "666" candles. She gave the audience the option of picking which cover to close out the set with, but specified that Evangelista would play the opposite of their request. A clever attendee cried "Neither!" and the band played both.
The set reinforced an image of Carla Bozulich's Evangelista as a peerless project. Live, Evangelista is rooted in rock instrumentation, but such classification feels inadequate. Bozulich's work is too akin to performance art, or poetry with accompaniment. The instruments on stage were mostly familiar to a rock audience, but they were wielded with experimental flare and flourishes, indicating the performers' backgrounds in jazz. While some groups fit neatly within a genre or style, labeling Evangelista seems reductive. After Saturday night, one more privileged American audience will struggle to adequately express what it saw, but surely won't forget.
Opener: While Evangelista used experimentation to embellish and enhance songs, local openers the Thomas Carnacki Quartet dealt in experimentation alone. The only conventional instrument in its arsenal was a 12-string guitar, but it was not used to strum chords, pick leads, or emit any conventional sounds. A table to the guitarist's side was laden with pedals and gadgetry that he used to manipulate the sound of metal grating on the guitar strings -- that is, when he wasn't amplifying the sound of his airways with a stethoscope and seriously distorting the result. Another table hosted a menagerie of what appeared to be vintage toys. Colorful spheres at the end of springs and metal coils or cylinders produced harrowing drones and shudders when prodded or flicked. Another performer's bowed bicycle wheel cut through the mix. Everything sounded underwater. Of course, so many actions and objects produce one sound in totality, and the Thomas Carnacki Quartet was continuously tense, eerie, and engaging, especially when projecting strange sounds designed to startle.
Note: Carla Bozulich lives in Europe. Appearances in the United States are rare, and the last local Evangelista show for the foreseeable future is Saturday, August 17, at the Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco. The same line-up is slated to play an entirely different set.