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Monday, June 3, 2013

SFMOMA's Countdown Celebration: Bands, Artists, and Visitors Converge on the Rooftop

Posted By on Mon, Jun 3, 2013 at 9:18 AM

T.I.T.S. performing at SFMOMA
  • T.I.T.S. performing at SFMOMA

Penelope Houston

Grass Widow


Saturday, June 1, 2013

SFMOMA Countdown Celebration, San Francisco

Better than: Waiting four hours to see The Clock, but incomparable to viewing The Clock for four hours.

As SFMOMA prepared to undergo a three year long transformation, the institution offered four free days of admission and, on Saturday, a 24-hour spectacle of comedy, music, and discussion on its rooftop patio. Attendees waited several hours throughout the night to see Christian Marclay's The Clock, others perused the voluble exhibit of Garry Winogrand's post-war documentary photography, and more mingled upstairs for the performance series.

The allure of free admission, a rare 24-hour screening of Marclay's 24-hour video-montage, and local musicians T.I.T.S., Grass Widow, and Penelope Houston brought out an eclectic audience on Saturday night. Passing through the top floor courtyard, one found art-world denizens sipping coffee incognito amongst the crowd, young Oakland warehouse dwellers conspiring to stay up all night, and first-time visitors compelled to visit SFMOMA at their last chance -- at least until 2016. With everyone coming to enjoy the arts on a historic evening, there was no tension between incongruous parties.

A trio of emcees adopted fictional personas as auction hosts from Daytona Beach and introduced local all-female experimental rock quartet T.I.T.S. Each band member donned black-and-white stripes, polka dots or floral patterns, black wigs and lipstick smeared across one cheek or the other. A steady floor tom beat introduced the first song, the pulse focusing attention on the stage where two guitarists picked out spidery leads. Declining to strum chords in favor of conjuring nebulous noise, the dissonant atmosphere underpinned T.I.T.S. menacing gang vocals. They intoned, bewitched and captivated, singing like incantations.


Another song similarly grew in intensity, this time increasing the tempo until the pulse was lost. With knowing nods and sideways glances on stage, T.I.T.S. dove into an arrhythmic decrescendo and eventual fadeout until only the thumping floor tom from the sets' beginning remained. All four members then grabbed each other's fake braids and chanted in one microphone. Of course, following T.I.T.S.'s engaging performance, the emcees discussed the difficulty of researching the band online. According to one auctioneer, whose recurring gag was being a "self-help junkie," what he found was "stimulating," but not relevant to the quartet, natch.

Given their politicized creative process, in which songwriting and decision-making is strictly egalitarian, Grass Widow is one of the most appropriate local groups for MOMA's event. Since 2009, the three women of Grass Widow have navigated the national music scene with a conscientiousness and ideological resolve rare among their peers. Furthermore, Grass Widow is a multi-disciplinary group, as likely to produce beautiful album art and music videos as to record plaintive vocal harmonies for pastoral post-punk songs both cerebral and inviting.

The group hunkered down side-stage, decidedly out of the spotlight and with viola and violin accompaniment, and performed to two films projected behind the improvised stage. Before the set, Hannah Lew explained to us that she created the first film, Over the Hill shortly after a death in her family, and sought to explore how we exist on different planes, or how death is not necessarily one's disappearance. In the short film, three shots of Lew climbing and descending a small hill are displayed in a sort of triptych. Lillian Maring and Lew sang, while third Grass Window member Raven Mahon played guitar alongside the string accompaniment. The stringed instruments created a dense drone, and the vocalists rapidly muttered, all gazing intently from their dark corner at the images on the screen. The effect was unnerving. It imbued the jovial room with sudden austerity -- like a police officer at the door of a party.

For the second time ever, Grass Widow projected the original prints for the "Give Me Shapes" music video and performed a minimal rendition of the 2010 single. The two videos, projected side-by-side, depict two jars of water filled with sea water at opposite sides of the country, driven across the USA, and ultimately dumped into the other ocean. Filmed by Hannah Lew and Mike Stoltz during a national Grass Widow tour, the video condenses the cross-country journey, which is routine for touring bands, into the mere length of a song. The fragile, transparent jars of water are an interesting choice of subject for a trip that can be so grueling, and lend the film the same sort of provocative idiosyncrasy that makes Grass Widow such a singular band.

Penelope Houston. Photo courtesy Steve Viaduct.
  • Penelope Houston. Photo courtesy Steve Viaduct.

Penelope Houston, best known as frontwoman of seminal San Francisco punk band the Avengers, performed a set of rootsy, expressive acoustic songs with support from the Honeybadgers. As she performed "On Market St." from her excellent 2012 album of the same name, the title began to sink in. It refers to San Francisco's iconic thoroughfare and obliquely implies her longevity as a local artist. But it also served as a reminder of art and music's continuous evolution in San Francisco. For SFMOMA's groundbreaking ceremony in 1992, Mark Pauline's legendary Survival Research Laboratories staged an anarchic machine battle. In 2013, Grass Widow set a live drone score to 16mm film projections. Here's hoping the reopening ceremony in 2016 will be just as progressive and challenging.

Critic's notebook

Music scene fixtures present for the musical block of the celebration: We spotted Research Publishing's V. Vale (not surprising; he gets around,) Mikal Cronin, and former Girls frontman Christopher Owens. La di da.

-- @Lefebvre_Sam

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