Dirty Baby by Nels Cline, David Breskin and Ed Ruscha at Walker Art Center, 11/29/12

Dirty Baby by Nels Cline, David Breskin and Ed Ruscha at Walker Art Center, 11/29/12
Photo by Lily Troia

DIRTY BABY: Nels Cline/David Breskin/Ed Ruscha
McGuire Theater, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
Thursday, November 29, 2012

Wednesday marked the second-ever (and perhaps last) performance of DIRTY BABY, a trialogue featuring the compositions of visual artist Ed Ruscha, poet David Breskin and musician/composer/guitar savant/Wilco dude Nels Cline.

The stage was set for ten, with a podium and menagerie of instruments, amps and pedals spread out beneath a huge projection screen. It was an intimidating feat to review an artistic endeavor that simultaneously involved three mediums: 66 Ruscha images paired with 66 Breskin poems, cast in the hypnotic net of corresponding Cline compositions, intent to capture and convey the constantly shifting Zeitgeist of America with a capital A.

A dense work that "marries music to pictures, pictures to poems and poems to music," DIRTY BABY combines these artists' talents in fascinating ways that could be unpacked for days. The piece, which was released as an album in 2010, features Side A, a narrative, sharing the "tall tale of American civilization" and, Side B, investigating the "American misadventure in Iraq", consisting of 33 brief compositions (most clocking in around a minute) paired with Ruscha's Cityscapes works, some of the most abstract in his extensive catalog. DIRTY BABY is perhaps best appreciated when felt as much as (if not more than) analyzed.

Dirty Baby by Nels Cline, David Breskin and Ed Ruscha at Walker Art Center, 11/29/12
Photo by Lily Troia

The lights dimmed and with no introduction, the nine musicians (including Cline's wife Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto fame) and poet quietly took the stage. Above, on the screen was an imposing Ruscha Cityscape with red rough-edged rectangles arranged horizontally in several dissimilar rows. Breskin, at the podium, began, with wry command, "You talk, you get killed. Come play, be our pleasured guest at Gitmo." In the salty voice of a tour guide, he exchanged couplets with Nels, who immediately beckoned distorted harmonics and wild timbre modulations from his guitar. After about ten couplets of the ghazal (a Persian form of verse) sardonically warning visitors of the many hazards they'd likely encounter "at Gitmo," the band broke into a swampy, harmonica-driven blues groove. Nels guitar tones' changed color every few bars and resonated with scapula-shaking intensity. Just a few minutes in and it was certain to be a viscerally-charged evening.

After a bit of vamping, Nels halted the band with a swift finger eliciting a sudden response of fierce applause from the audience. Breskin then continued with some opening remarks and explanations, accompanied by more than a handful of witticisms and one-liners. "This ain't no ring cycle" he joked, explaining why due to time constraints, the ensemble would only perform selections from DIRTY BABY. In addition, he announced, for those who had not already figured it out, they would continue by performing selections from Side B first, then Side A. Indeed, the piece was conceived as something seamless, reversible, a "book which opens out rather than closes in". Breskin cited also a desire to reverse the order philosophical questions posed by each side -- i.e., asking first Where did we end up? (Side B) before How did we get here? (Side A) -- a socio-cosmic game of Jeopardy.

The screen shifted to the next frame and Breskin began "If I Was You I'd Do Just Like I Tell You to Do," a smarmy ghazal in the voice of an arrogant soldier, accompanied by a frenetic bop drum/bass theme quickly overtaken by train-like chords from the keys, harmonica and guitars. The group followed with eight of the 33 pieces from Side B, each beginning with Breskin's poem, followed by Cline's minute-long musical expression of the same Bruscha painting displayed above.

The brevity of each piece made it difficult to ruminate for long on any one idea, but realizing that confusion was intentional, the spastic exchanges formed their own chaotic rhythm if you'd allow yourself to let go. As Breskin and the musicians would jolt us along, the audience, at first unsure how or when to respond, began to do so spontaneously -- laughter at a witty political pun, hoots after a particularly gorgeous section with Cline on lap steel, and even a lone "YEA" when a cacophonous moment suddenly ceased into silence.

Following "Do as Told or Suffer", a poem about Saddam, Cline offered a rich, organ-like harmonized melody on his guitar, alternating with heavy distortion barbs in more hurried succession until the sound shook the hall like machine gun fire or bomber planes. Above, the Cityscape featured red with white, almost face-like blocks on the screen; I found myself staring deeply until the colors and lines began to vibrate along with the music. Galloping, bombastic music was married to "I'm Going to Leave More Notes and I'm Going to Kick More Ass," whose poem was culled from actual G. W. Bush quotes during a video conference to military generals during the Iraq War. On the Walker website, Cline noted that this choice of music intentionally referenced the U.S.'s alleged use of heavy metal as a method of torture when interrogating detainees.

The final Side B selection, "You Will Eat Hot Lead", layered a low bass drone with angry Breskin couplets. One moment Nels was a man possessed, culling futuristic moans from his guitar and dancing back and forth on his pedals like a shaman; the next, he'd wave an arm or shake a finger at the band with precision, directing an obscure change amidst the improvisatory stew.


Side A was presented first as a selection of 10 or so ghazals read by Breskin, addressing the ancient question of "How did we get here?" as chronicled by the tale of American civilization. Breskin's words had a musicality all their own as he delighted us with rhymes on the beginnings of man, the rise of industrialization, even the etymology of the word "Ho." Poem/painting combos like Man, Wife, featuring silhouettes of a large and small ship tossed at sea ("You'd have to ask Ed which is which." Breskin joked) seemed especially popular among the audience who chortled at its wry, harsh critiques of marriage. Personally, I connected more with the melancholy pieces ("Hope" - "is there a sadder word in all the world?") and ones more clouded conceptually ("Digit House" - "chasing the leopardess flux"). But what a special treat, to sit among hundreds, including those onstage, rapt and perched on a poet's every word, under the halo of such outstanding visual works.

Breskin then left the remainder of the evening to Nels and his cast of talents to perform the music from Side A in its entirety: a suite of 6 continuous pieces meant to take listeners on a journey from the age of microbes to the reign of G.W. With lava-like continuity, Cline led his ensemble with all the nuance lost in manifest destiny. In keeping with Breskin's guiding notion of polyphony, the Nels' compositions layered thoughts on top of ideas, daydreams on top of nightscapes, exchanging haunting unisons with rich harmonies. With the same ease, the band would flow in and out of sonorous and experimental washes of sound.

Afforded more space to unfold than in the short pieces on Side B, Side A gave shape to the contrasts of sparseness and thickness more acutely. Several minutes into a very Frisell-esque, almost film score melodic thought, the band oozed into a disjunct, noisy segment harkening to transmissions from a satellite. Later, a beautiful acoustic guitar duet, tugging at the Gypsy link from Iberia to the Fertile Crescent, evolved into a rollicking acid jazz jam reverent to the early 70s Miles Breskin hoped to have Nels emulate. It was easy to get lost in a sensory blanket, with Ruscha's haunting, eery silhouettes charting our aural journey of being, until Part VI dissipated into a picked guitar tantric trance that slowly sifted into silence. The audience seemed too awestruck to respond, or too confused to know the show was over (or perhaps both), and it took a wave of Nels' hand to indicate to us that it was time to applaud.

Dirty Baby by Nels Cline, David Breskin and Ed Ruscha at Walker Art Center, 11/29/12EXPAND
Photo by Lily Troia

The crowd filtered to about half full for the Q & A that followed, including not only Breskin and Cline, but also Ed Ruscha, who kept jovially insisting that he was merely a "silent partner." The session offered a detailed look at the complex, yet organic compositional processes involved, the challenges of performing a piece that was intended as a book and the philosophical ramifications of words, place and the messy offspring we create.

This exquisite, enveloping show will likely stay with us for days, steeping into our subconscious, which reminded me of an apt Ruscha quote "Art has to be something that makes you scratch your head".


Side B:

You Talk, You Get Killed
(opening remarks - David Breskin)
If I Was You I'd Do Just as I Tell You to Do
No Mercy
Do As Told or Suffer
I'm Going to Leave More Notes and I'm Going to Kick More Ass
Don't Threaten Me With Your Threats
I Just Might Get Ugly if You Talk
You Will Eat Hot Lead

Side A:

Selected ghazals read by Breskin
Dirty Baby: Parts I-VI

Followed by Q&A with Nels Cline, David Breskin and Ed Ruscha

Random Detail: I noticed a handwritten price tag hanging from Devin Hoff's electric bass and randomly thought, "I wonder if that came from Willie's American Guitars?", knowing of the shop's Wilco relationship. Sure enough during the Q&A, Nels mentioned that since the ensemble was an ad hoc assemblage of his favorite musicians and they had just come together for this singular performance, they had to swing by Willie's and borrow much of the gear for the show.

The Crowd: About 70/30 male to female, mostly over-45 Walker-patron-esque types, interspersed with stocking-capped young guitar geeks.

Overheard: From a younger flannel-wearing collegeish lad "That was...so much information."

Critic's Bias: I've had a gigantic creative crush on Nels Cline for years, Wilco and beyond, though this was my first opportunity to see him perform in an avant garde project. I feel privileged to have experienced such a monumental, unique creative endeavor.

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