June 8, 2010

Artworks, Gigs

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"Slack Power" (1969/2006) from UNBRANDED

Last Saturday (6/6/2010), Leslie and I hopped the No. 7 train from Grand Central to MoMA PS1 in Long Island City. This semi-autonomous branch of the Museum of Modern Art is described on its Web site as “one of the oldest and largest non-profit contemporary art institutions in the United States. An exhibition space rather than a collecting institution, MoMA PS1 devotes its energy and resources to displaying the most experimental art in the world…MoMA PS1 actively pursues emerging artists, new genres, and adventurous new work by recognized artists in an effort to support innovation in contemporary art.”

On this particular day, the Oberlin College Alumni Association was offering a free guided tour to Oberlin grads (Leslie graduated with the class of ’77). I had not visited PS1 in years and was very impressed by the scope and diversity of the current “Greater New York” show, encompassing painting, sculpture, video, photography, mixed media, and two exotic koi goldfish (in a sort of living diorama by Tommy Hartung entitled B Roll). But my favorite among all the various galleries was the first complete NYC installation of the pictorial series Unbranded by the African-American artist Hank Willis Thomas.

Hank was born 3/17/1976 in Plainfield, New Jersey (the original stomping grounds of George Clinton and the nascent Parliament-Funkadelic, BTW) and holds degrees from California College of the Arts and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Father Hank Thomas was/is a jazz musician turned film producer, property developer, and stockbroker; mother Deborah Willis (Ph.D.) is an accomplished photographer, widely published author, NYU professor and current chair of the Tisch School’s Department of Photography. Hank the Younger has been showing his work since student days in the mid-Nineties, but PS1 was my first encounter and he knocked me out.

The starting point for Unbranded is 40 years of selected magazine and newspaper advertisements created by Corporate America and aimed at Black America from 1968. Hank has computer-imaged the ads to eliminate all the original text and brand identifications, so that what we’re left with are remarkably revealing and absorbing portraits of black people (occasionally

"The Mandingo of Sandwiches" (1977/2007) from UNBRANDED

in the company of white people) over four decades of American life, with each year represented by two different images. In place of the ad copy, Hank has created his own captions outside the frames, and these are sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes…something else.

"The Oft Forgotten Flower Children of Harlem" (1969/2006) from UNBRANDED

On his Web site, Hank Willis Thomas says of Unbranded:

“I believe that in part, advertising’s success rests on its ability to reinforce generalizations about race, gender, and ethnicity which can be entertaining, sometimes true, and sometimes horrifying, but which at a core level are a reflection of the way a culture views itself or its aspirations.

“By ‘unbranding’ advertisements I can literally expose what Roland Barthes refers to as ‘what-goes-without-saying’ in ads, and hopefully encourage viewers to look harder and think deeper about the empire of signs that have become second nature to our experience of life in the modern world.”

Hank Willis Thomas with "Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil's Son-In-Law" (2000/2005)

I should give props also to Hank’s fellow artist William Cordova (born 1971 in Lima, Peru) who shares this particular PS1 gallery with HWT. In the center of the floor, Cordova  has constructed a maze from old LP covers, mostly r&b and disco — I believe the title is Laberintos (Labyrinths). This work demanded a little more attention than I was able to give it at the time: The tour group was moving on, and I was still buzzing from Unbranded.

As part of the “Greater New York” show, Hank’s masterful work is up through 10/18/2010. It’s rich in meaning, it looks great, and you really should see it for yourself.

June 3, 2010



All photos by ZAK SHELBY-SZYSZKO for Zeal Images unless credited otherwise.

It was early May, the gig was two weeks away, and things weren’t looking good for the star of the show, Jerry Williams Jr. a/k/a Swamp Dogg.

The iconoclastic r&b singer/songwriter/producer had not played New York City in over a decade. (His last local appearance had taken place at Coney Island High, an East Village rock club that closed in  July 1999.) The upcoming show was booked at City Winery, an upscale venue more closely associated with the music of Amy Mann, Steve Earle, or Suzanne Vega than with old-school, hard-core rhythm & blues. Advance publicity was light, advance ticket sales were lighter.

Swamp Dogg was “coming off” his 2009 album Give ‘Em As Little As You Can…As Often As You Have To… Or, A Tribute To Rock ‘N’ Roll — a collection of songs written and/or made famous by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimmy Reed, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bruce Springsteen, among others. The CD was released by S-Curve Records through EMI — the first Swamp Dogg disc in decades to receive major-label distribution. Despite the best efforts of the S-Curve staff and myself (as his belatedly hired indie publicist), Give ‘Em As Little As You Can… soon went down in musical history as what S-Curve founder/label head Steve Greenberg ruefully described as “possibly the worst-selling album of both Swamp Dogg’s career and mine.” Although  marred by its “canned” drum sound, Give ‘Em As Little As You Can… was nonetheless an audacious attempt to reclaim rock & roll as Black Music, a sui generis creation unlike any other album made by an African-American artist since I-don’t-know-when.

All in all, the stage at City Winery seemed set for deep disappointment if not outright disaster. Guess what?

Swamp Dogg killed. His set was a triumph.

The unknowing and unsuspecting among us were converted for life and sent forth into the night, frothing at the mouth and babbling in tongues of ecstasy. The true believers, your faithful scribe among them, were lifted to Soul Heaven on a pair of golden fried chicken wings (with choice of grits, black-eyed peas, or collard greens).

Swamp Dogg (lead vocals and electric piano) was backed capably and sympathetically by The Revelations of Brooklyn NY. I believe the personnel for this gig was Wes Mingus (guitar), Borahm Lee (keyboards), Josh Werner (bass) and Gintas Janusonis (drums) plus a three-man horn section. The set list went as follows:

1. “The Mind Does The Dancing While The Body Pulls The Strings” from Have You Heard This Story?? (Island, 1974)

We’ve waited with growing impatience through a solid hour of the opening Tomas Doncker Band (jammy and bluesy, with some good playing, weaker singing, forgettable songs) and another 15 minutes of changeover. Swamp enters from stage left, sits down at his keyboard, and gets things off to a rousing start: He’s in strong voice and looking resplendent in lime-green suit with matching hat, belt, tie, socks, shoes — hell, his drawers probably match. The audience, which fills a respectable two-thirds of this rather cavernous room, breathes a collective sigh of relief.

2. “Since I Fell For You” from Resurrection (S.D.E.G., 2007, with a cover shot of Swamp Dogg crucified)

Buddy Johnson‘s greatest hit, first recorded circa 1945, has been covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Tom Waits to the Sonics. Swamp got around to cutting the song in ’07 and sings the hell out of it at City Winery: The one-word description in my notebook says “Stratospheric!” Steve Greenberg turns to me and asks: “Why didn’t he put this on his S-Curve album?!”

3. “Synthetic World” from Total Destruction To Your Mind (Canyon Records, 1970)

The Revelations work up a nice MGs-type groove behind the Dogg’s impassioned vocal on this mid-tempo classic with its almost Dylanesque lines like “Friendship is like acid/It burns as it slides away…” Halfway through, Swamp Dogg launches into a semi-improvised rap — complete with Xanax reference — about suffering panic attacks while driving on Los Angeles freeways. Genius.

Photo by Kees Tabak

4. “Sam Stone” from Cuffed, Collared, Tagged & Gassed (Cream Records, 1972 — also includes “Lady Madonna” and Joe South‘s “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home”)

The Viet Nam War was still raging in 1971 when John Prine released this heartbreaking ballad of a heroin-addicted Army veteran on his self-titled Atlantic debut. Swamp Dogg covered it the next year and over time the song became a cornerstone of his live shows. Tonight at City Winery, Swamp brings “Sam Stone” sharply up to date: “Nowadays, those GIs ain’t comin’ home with dope habits,” he intones mournfully. “They’re comin’ home in coffins, from Iraq and Afghanistan…”

5. “Born Blue” from Total Destruction To Your Mind – Another great performance, with Swamp Dogg stretching and scatting on the title phrase.

6. “In My Résumé” from Finally Caught Up With Myself (Springboard International, 1977 — also includes “Slow Slow Disco,” sampled by Kid Rock on “I Got One For Ya” from Devil Without A Cause)

At this point, the show has transcended the conventions of r&b live performance. It’s now a combination of Baptist tent revival, therapeutic encounter session, and after-hours blue mood, imbued with a profound sense of personal truth-telling courtesy of The Dogg. What more can I add but mindless superlatives: “great,” “awesome,” “wow,” etc.

7. “Total Destruction To Your Mind” Swamp Dogg takes us home with a rocking version of his personal anthem, re-cut for Give ‘Em As Little As You Can… (and nicely covered by roots-rocker Eric “Roscoe” Ambel on Roscoe’s Gang in 1988).

The 45-minute set has passed all too quickly; Swamp Dogg and the Revelations have played all of their rehearsed material — but the crowd won’t let them go. After some hemming and hawing and one false start, Swamp and the band launch into an impromptu but devastating rendition of Big Joe Turner‘s “Crawdad Hole” that is the best piece of flat-feet-on-the-floor, stand-up blues singing I’ve heard since Howard Tate‘s NYC comeback at Village Underground in July 2001.

A.S. and Swamp Dogg bond over my copy of his 1989 LP "I Called For A Rope And They Threw Me A Rock." (Photo by Howard B. Leibowitz)

Aaron Fuchs was still floating on the high of this show days later when he wrote:

“It was a rare occasion when a show so greatly exceeded my expectations. Aside from doing everything you’d expect from Swamp Dogg — all the songs you really wanted to hear, with stream-of-consciousness interludes — it was his entirely undiminished piercing tenor combined with his nods to the ages that made the show incredible. I have never, ever heard anyone cover Big Joe Turner’s ‘Crawdad Hole.’ And he ripped it.

ADDENDUM: The unfortunate task of following this revelatory performance fell to the Revelations and their regular lead singer Tre Williams. I’d seen this group three times previously as headliners and always enjoyed them; I can recommend the debut CD The Bleeding Edge without reservation. For whatever reason, Tre’s vocal partner Rell Gaddis was AWOL from City Winery and their particular interplay — a neo-soul variation on hip-hop’s MC/hype man combination — was very much missed. Matters were not improved by the fact that perhaps three-fourths of the audience had left the venue immediately following Swamp Dogg’s performance.