Rubbernecking

The No Neck Blues Band's art-noise jams put the "hip" back in "hippie"--and at least some of the world is watching

In the distance, street noise flutters and wafts. In the audio foreground, there are the taps that a boombox makes when it's moved while the tape is rolling. A muffled voice: "Is the mic on? Hello--hello?" Breathing. A series of staccato plucks on an E string. A count-off: "Okay, ready--one, two, three, four." Then something (a person? a machine?) goes NANGNANGNANGNANGNANG while something else goes GBNGBNWOAWWOAWWOAW. A flute shrieks out arpeggios. The voice, still muffled, but now stentorian and distorted, intones "THE HAND OF GOD CAME DOWN... AND DISLODGED A 35-POUND CHUNK OF ICE... AND ALL I HAVE TO SAY IS... BEANS AND RICE." The mic is feeding back, drowning out someone who's muttering something else. A bass begins a broken jazz riff, then abandons it. A saxophone moans and creaks, and cymbals crash as a stealth beat, played on what sounds like claves and an alarm clock, sneaks in and gradually takes control--until it collapses again.

The first few minutes of "Ye boned ragas a garden obey," the lead track on the No Neck Blues Band's latest double CD The Birth of Both Worlds (out now on the band's own label, Serth), make about as much sense as the piece's palindromic title--that is, either none at all, or a whole bunch if you've happened to inhale lately. Even those disinclined to pursue pharmacologically enabled mysticism may find No Neck's delirium engrossing and rewarding, if sometimes frustrating. On the rewarding side, the improv group's forays into expansive free-jazz, jam-oriented Krautrock, and psychedelic freak-outs are always invigorated by a tumultuous sense of flow and change that rides on nothing but rough spots. On the frustrating side, they owe a debt so huge to all things avant-garde and 30 years ago that one suspects they'll never pay off the interest--or even shake themselves free long enough to remember to ask what they're all about and why.

Rocking out on the hubcap and the tree branch: New York's No Neck Blues Band
Rocking out on the hubcap and the tree branch: New York's No Neck Blues Band

No Neck--also known as NNCK to a small but growing number of followers within the global free noise overground--formed seven years ago in New York City and have subsequently been churning out jams of the hairiest breed, at word-of-mouth gigs and on a number of self-released discs. Their wild-eyed, stoner lunacy unmistakably pegs them as hippies--as does their long hair and the other usual trappings--though the Grateful Dead they're not. Indeed, they're not even that similar to The Tower Recordings, NYC's other most visible noise-folk klatch, who are practically pastoral in comparison. Peace and love is not the NNCK vibe. Then again, it's hard to pin down the vibe of a group that may recall, within the span of a few minutes, Sun Ra, Harry Partch, Einstürzende Neubauten, the Incredible String Band, and the Dead C.

On top of their stylistic elusiveness, NNCK have deliberately kept a low profile, often shunning clubs to hold shows (complete with lentil dinners) in the Hint House, their communal dwelling on a semideserted and decidedly unfashionable Harlem block, or on rooftops and riverside docks. And they're not much for self-promotion. When I encountered three No Neckers at a recent Boredoms show in New York and asked about setting up an interview for this article, Jeff, NNCK vocalist and primary tree-branch wielder, ended up giving me an "interview" on the spot that primarily consisted of his responding to my questions with one-word replies ("YES," "7," "NYC") scrawled on a sheet of paper. (True, the sound system was pretty loud, but that still qualifies, quite literally, as cryptic.) After a couple of minutes, he wandered off. But hey, given that he's the narrator of the "chunk of ice/beans and rice" verse quoted above, that may have been a relatively coherent exchange.

Despite this anti-publicity stance, No Neck's reputation has been spreading. Of late, they've received the blessing of iconoclastic guitar legend John Fahey: He's played twice at the Hint House; his Revenant label will release the next NNCK record this fall; and he plays with the band on certain dates of this summer's tour (though not in Minneapolis).

At the same time, NNCK's live sets have been steadily moving in the direction of down-and-dirty, multi-instrumental grooves (they're now an eight-piece), anchored by talented percussionist David Nuss. Around this spiny core of beats swirls a vortex of chaos and randomness. Odd instruments like hubcaps (and the tree branch) lend the proceedings a rough, almost rustic, industrial feel. And vocalist Michiko mutters and shrieks (often in a way that is too Yokoesque for comfort). On the whole, the effect is druggy without being exactly psychedelic; it's elemental and ferocious, like hail or a sandstorm. This is music that at once creates and destroys, tears down and builds--even if the building materials are recycled many times over. If NNCK take as a priori the innovations of the performers that paved the way for their existence, at least they travel the same bold path. I guess that's called folk tradition.

 

The No Neck Blues Band will perform with opener Sunburned Hand of the Man at 10:00 p.m. Friday, July 2 at Gus Lucky's Gallery; (612) 728-9668.

 
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