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House of Tudor 

Paolo Angeli's giant, maniacal guitar; a reincarnated Amber Asylum; and a slightly poncey Divine Comedy

Wednesday, Jan 22 2003
Commonly known as the "giant guitar" for the dimension of its resonance box, the Sardinian guitar can be played upright with a bow and tuned a fourth or fifth lower than is typical, allowing it to traverse the range between a Spanish folk guitar and an acoustic bass. On the tiny Mediterranean island of Sardinia, it is a quintessential component for the annual Canto Contest, in which the player must interpret and support the vocal improvisations of three or more singers while adhering to native song structure. For Paolo Angeli, that traditional use of the instrument was just a beginning. After studying with Giovanni Scanu, the oldest living Sardinian guitar player, Angeli adapted the instrument to his own improvisational needs, equipping it with a dozen pickups so that a different effect might be assigned to each string. In addition, tiny hammers controlled by foot pedals rap on every nylon string, providing rhythmic accompaniment, while a small propeller creates circular bass drones and continuous melodies. The result is unimaginable. In a heat of super-human finger-picking, maniacal bow work, and flashing feet, Angeli constructs and deconstructs the notes, stretching, bending, breaking, and transforming them until it is as if we were inside them, unable to recognize our surroundings. Bagpipes, clarinets, bells, dulcimers, trumpets, sheet metal, tin cans, and pneumatic hammers seem to hide beneath his fingertips, and while the combination isn't always pleasing to the ears, it occupies well the space between them. Paolo Angeli headlines the Evander Music Winter Festival, held Saturday, Jan. 25, at 21 Grand, with Squiggle opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $6-10; call (510) 444-7263.

Gazing back through the blood-and-wine vapor of 1997, I find myself in Nomad's Land, floating through a hungry sea of one-eyed brigands and bare-chested nymphs with spinning eyes. Doo Rag has already lost one half of its two-man configuration, and the cops will raid the warehouse long before Crash Worship hits its stride, but for a fleeting moment I am sated: Amidst a tempest of blazing hula hoops and exploding fireworks, violinist Kris Force and cellist Jackie Perez-Gratz, the double-stranded helix at the heart of Amber Asylum, are conveyed through the crowd in a ceremonial ship orbited by litters of roasted pigs and freshly cut fruit. Onstage, the Baroque melancholy of Amber Asylum rises over the hedonistic swell of drums and the roar of flamethrowers, the duo's instruments fluttering and smoldering in whispers and wails that dust the bacchanalia with a necrotic hue. I am instantly beguiled, trapped by the Amber infusion.

Unbeknownst to me, Perez-Gratz has only just begun to recover from rigid training within professional symphony orchestras, while Force has long haunted the fringes and fissures of the aural underground, first lending her instrumental talents to Tribes of Neurot, Neurosis, and Swans recordings, then revealing her gift for musical composition and her classically trained soprano on two Amber Asylum albums, Frozen in Amber and The Natural Philosophy of Love. Starting that night in 1997, the creative union of Force and Perez-Gratz became the indivisible core of the group, imbuing the orchestral noir of 1999's Songs of Sex and Death with a far deeper luster and sharper despair. The following album, The Supernatural Parlour Collection, found Lost Goat's Erica Stoltz contributing bass and vocals to the fresh ranks of Wendy Farina on drums, Jayne Roderick on piano, and Cat Gratz on oboe. Force grabbed the chance to explore more muscular terrain -- the dread-inducing military march that leads into "Black Lodge," the throaty Shirley Bassey howl created for an epic rendition of "Black Sabbath." With Stoltz's recent relocation to New York, we find Amber Asylum in the midst of yet another evolution -- the Gault's Sarah Wiener and Lorraine Rath have taken over drums, bass, and vocal harmony, and Hammers of Misfortune's John Cobbett has added guitar -- but it's still the strings that create and scorch the honeyed setting in which Force's voice hangs like a crown jewel. You can glimpse the latest incarnation of Amber Asylum on Sunday, Jan. 26, at the Bottom of the Hill, with Burmese and Ten Grand opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $7; call 621-4455.

Once the preferred opening act for Suede, the Divine Comedy didn't achieve notable success until 1996, after Oasis and Pulp had repaved the way for fey, self-absorbed, slightly poncey, terribly clever boys from Britain to rise in the charts after worshipping at the feet of Scott Walker and Morrissey. Unlike the fetid Gallagher brothers, Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon had always recorded pretty decent music, and unlike Jarvis Cocker, he continues to do so. The Divine Comedy's last release, Regeneration, found Hannon abandoning the coquettish smirks and inside jokes that made the Divine Comedy's breakout album, Casanova, so alluring, choosing to explore British class issues with delicate melodies and plaintive sincerity. Thankfully, it's a look Hannon wears well. The Divine Comedy performs on Monday, Jan. 27, at Slim's, with Bart Davenport opening at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15-16; call 522-0333.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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