Jandek, 3/11/07, Richmond VA.

The thing about Jandek that you won’t ever get from looking at pictures of him is just how scary he looks. He is incredibly gaunt, almost emaciated in appearance, with huge, gnarled hands and deep-set, hollow eyes that stare out at you from under a black cowboy hat pulled low onto his forehead. When he stepped out onto the stage at Richmond’s Firehouse Theatre, the overall impression was of Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven crossed with Frankenstein’s monster. The rest of his attire—long-sleeved dress shirt, dress slacks, and leather shoes—was just as black as his hat, and he looked significantly older than he appears in any of the pictures that have appeared on his album covers over the years; old enough to lend credence to the rumor that his recent live appearances, which began in October 2004 after over 25 years of releasing albums without any promotion, were spurred by retirement from his day job.

The show, Jandek’s 22nd live appearance in the two-and-a-half years since that first date, took place in a small theatre that normally hosts plays. In fact, a play is currently in production there, and the band performed amidst props on a stage set apparently designed to look like the living room of a 60s era apartment. Jandek’s guitar amp, a Fender 1x12 combo, sat next to an ancient stereo and a crate of LPs, which seemed appropriate.

His backing band consisted of drummer Brian Jones, formerly of defunct local reggae group Agents Of Good Roots, bassist Curtis Fye, who does a lot of jazz sessionwork, and an alto saxophonist, whom I can’t identify, since he wasn’t mentioned in any of the advance publicity. Apparently, he was the “surprise” that promoter Tim Strange mentioned on the Jandek mailing list. All of the members of the backing band appeared significantly younger than Jandek—I’d guess that they all were in their 20s, or maybe early 30s at the oldest.

The set began soon after the 7 PM door-opening time, and the sellout crowd of some 150 people were incredibly polite, waiting until breaks between songs to get up and use the restroom and remaining absolutely silent during the performance. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, even at a symphony performance—I imagine some jazz performances must be like this, but the experience was new to me. The crowd that Jandek drew was incredibly diverse, too, with college students seated right next to well-dressed middle-aged couples.

Neither Jandek nor the members of his backing band spoke a single word while onstage, not even to each other. They communicated through significant looks and gestures, and even those were kept to a minimum. The first song began with Jandek dragging his pick across the strings of his guitar, at which point the band immediately came in, in a manner that reminded me of the way free jazz songs typically start. In fact, free jazz is undoubtedly the appropriate starting point when describing the music that Jandek played this evening. The first song was somewhat mellow, with the drummer playing with brushes and mallets rather than sticks. It seemed to have almost no form at first; the drummer and bassist both played disconnected notes and fills that had no rhythmic unity to them. The saxophonist, who was plagued by microphone feedback during the first song, played over the rhythm section in a free jazz manner, not soloing or playing melodic lines, but flowing through notes and scales in no obvious pattern. However, what he was doing was still somewhat conventional, a fact undercut by Jandek’s atonal guitar playing. If what he was doing could be considered soloing, it was not soloing that worked with the backing music. Instead, he twanged, scraped, and snapped at his strings, pulling sounds from his guitar that didn’t even sound like notes as much as they sounded like an attack on the guitar itself. After a few minutes, the rhythm section settled into the sort of pulse that is often the closest free jazz comes to having a beat. The drummer was still avoiding anything that could carry a rhythm for more than a measure or so, and there certainly wasn’t a unifying time signature that the band stuck to, but nonetheless a pulse was there that could be felt, especially if you listened most closely to the bass, which often repeated short groups of notes in a strangely syncopated pattern. Throughout the backing musicians’ build into this pulsing rhythm, Jandek continued to play fragmented bursts of noise, his left hand moving up and down the neck of the guitar with no real rhyme or reason. The more solid the structure of the song seemed, the less a part of it his playing was, at times seeming more like a distraction from the song than a part of it.

After what felt like 7 or 8 minutes of this instrumental performance, Jandek stepped to the microphone for the first time. When he started singing, he stopped playing guitar for the most part, scraping at the strings once or twice per verse, if even that. This was something that he did throughout the performance, which was understandable in light of the fact that he probably only has a couple of days in which to rehearse these performances with the locally-based backing groups he picks, and can’t necessarily devote much time to learning to sing the songs while still playing guitar. And let me just say one thing right now—there’s no doubt in my mind that Jandek knows how to play guitar. Even if he was truly talentless when he began making records, it’s been nearly 30 years since then. He’s bound to have picked up some things. The fact that he can do an entire performance without once hitting a pleasant note says to me that he’s avoiding them on purpose. If his playing is ugly and atonal, and has no real rhythmic sense, that’s because he wants it to be that way.

When Jandek started singing on the first song of the evening, his voice was immediately recognizable to any longtime listeners. He has a peculiar howling, moaning tone to his voice, and sings in a manner that subverts the notes he’s singing even as he hits them. It seems that he deliberately avoids a unifying key when he’s singing, making sure that the note he begins on is never followed by one that sounds good with it. The lyrics to the first song were upbeat, talking of a happy relationship. There were several four-line verses to the song, each of which was followed by an instrumental section. The final verse ended with the line, “You’re the world, and I love you.”

The second song was noticeably louder and more discordant, a change that was immediately apparent by the drummer’s using regular sticks. The pulse on this song was faster, more urgent, and the saxophone was more frenetic. Jandek’s guitar playing was louder and more consistent, though still undercutting any sort of rhythm that might be established by the backing band, however loose that rhythm might be. Again on this song, the band jammed instrumentally for several minutes before Jandek started singing. This song had more verses than the first song did, and undercut that song’s upbeat feel, beginning with a description of trouble in a relationship. By the third verse, things had fallen apart, and Jandek sang, “It was inevitable that you would leave. What do I have? Another mystery.” I recognized the “What do I have?” line from descriptions of his third show, released on CD as Glasgow Monday. The themes of love and loss have run through many of his lyrics over the years, but he seems in recent material to be working through the fallout from the end of a particular relationship, at least if his return to certain lyrical conceits can be considered an indication.

By the third song, things had grown even darker and more discordant. The music had reminded me somewhat of the early 80s No Wave movement on the second song, but the third song was so much louder and more intense that I found myself thinking of recent jazz-grindcore hybrids created by bands like Hella, or Orthrelm. I would mention Lightning Bolt, but all of their songs employ rigid structures and lengthy repetitive sections, and Jandek was, if anything, at the opposite extreme. The bass player’s repetitive syncopations continued on this song, but they were almost entirely overridden by the frantic pounding of the drummer, and the desperate scraping noises from Jandek’s guitar. I noticed that a lot of what he was playing on this song involved him placing his left thumb across the neck of his guitar like a bar, and then moving up and down the strings with his pick even as he slid his thumb up and down the neck. This might lead you to expect a more structured guitar attack on this song than on the previous two, but such was not the case. One thing I noticed about Jandek’s part of the performance, both where his vocals and his guitar playing were concerned, was that he kept his own internal rhythm, but it was never a rhythm that had anything to do with the one being kept by the rest of the band. At some of the more intense moments of the performance, you could see him tapping his feet along with the rhythmic pulse of the backing band, so it’s not that he was unaware of the rhythm they were creating—his attempts to counter and subvert that rhythm were almost certainly on purpose. Unfortunately, from where I was sitting at least, the loud, discordant effects of Jandek’s guitar playing almost completely drowned out the saxophone player. He was playing much closer to the microphone by now than he had been during the first song when he was troubled by feedback, but he was still only clearly audible when playing in higher registers. As with all Jandek shows, the concert was documented on audio and video, and I have no doubt that the saxophone was picked up clearly enough by the microphones to be audible on recording, but it was definitely fighting against the sheer volume of the other instruments.

Jandek’s lyrics on this song were his most caustic, matching the intensity of the music. As best as I could determine, the lyrics to this one dealt with an ex-lover’s attempt to remain friends, an idea that Jandek obviously felt was ridiculous. “Hey, let’s go on!” he sang at one point, following this with a spoken “That doesn’t sound right!” The next line, sung, was “What’s she on?”, followed by a spoken “I don’t know.” His delivery was loud and clear, cutting through the music’s volume with an intensity of its own. I was worried when he stepped to the mic to sing this song that his voice would not be able to cut through the noise the backing musicians were generating, but that turned out not to be a problem.

All of this stood in stark contrast to the fourth song, which was the quietest played all evening. After the intensity of the third song, it seemed even more stark and harrowing. The drummer returned to the use of brushes, while the bassist played mostly harmonic notes on his bass, choking off their reverberations by muting the strings with his fingertips almost immediately after he played the notes. The saxophonist was once again clearly audible at all times, and like the drummer and bassist, he played quieter and more sparely than he had at any previous point in the set. Rather than coming across as subdued, though, the whole thing felt ominous and foreboding, especially with the addition of Jandek’s guitar playing, which as ever undercut the work of the backing band with its staccato twangs and snaps. He shifted abruptly from quiet noises that were barely audible beneath the backing band to loud noises that overrode everything else being played, again with no evident pattern. When the vocals came in, again after several minutes of instrumental jamming, they clearly told a story of a girl dressed in white, carrying a pink handbag, stopping in a public square to watch a festival. What this story meant was unclear—no context was provided in the lyrics, and no clue was given as to whether this girl in white (standing in stark contrast to Jandek’s man in black) bore any relation to the lost love of the first three songs. Perhaps in a year or two when this concert appears on an album, the meaning will be made clear through more detailed analysis of the lyrics, but I know Jandek well enough not to expect any clear analysis to be necessarily possible.

The fifth song built in intensity from the fourth song, beginning with the drummer, who once again had traded his brushes for sticks, banging a circular piece of metal that looked like the bottom of a roto-tom. He hit it twice, getting ringing sounds from it, then set it down on his snare drum. It didn’t have a particularly noticeable effect on the sound of his snare, but it remained there throughout the song, and you could hear his sticks hitting it on occasion. The bassist, who was playing a fretless bass, made good use of it on this song with lots of sliding basslines. This song hadn’t built to the volume of the second and third songs, and was instead perhaps around the level of the first song. Jandek began singing almost immediately on this one, a marked change from the first four songs, all of which began with lengthy instrumental sections. This song didn’t feel any shorter than the first four, though, giving over its increased length to a much longer lyric section. Towards the end of the song, there was a point where the bassist and drummer actually slipped into a groove, both of them playing an uptempo 4/4 riff that seemed like it must be illusory at first, given how determinedly the entire band had avoided anything of the sort throughout the show. After a bit, though, it became obvious that they were doing this, and it made me wonder whether the strain of constantly uprooting their own rhythms throughout the set had finally gotten to the two musicians. I found myself thinking that if Jandek were James Brown, he’d fine both musicians after the set.

The sixth and final song made me realize that I was probably wrong about that, though, when it began with the drummer playing a syncopated 4/4 beat that was soon joined by the bassist and saxophonist. No doubt about it, this song was constructed around not even a pulse but an actual syncopated rhythm. Jandek, for the most part, continued his tearing away at the foundations of the song in his guitar playing, but even he joined in the rhythm that the band was playing at certain points. This song didn’t match the noisy, frantic intensity of the third song, but nonetheless I would characterize it as the heaviest song of the evening, since the groove it locked into was syncopated but at the same time pounding and intense. I’ve heard Jandek’s second live performance (released on CD as Newcastle Sunday) characterized as resembling Public Image Ltd’s landmark second album, Metal Box (aka Second Edition), due to its sheer heavy funkiness. I haven’t heard that set myself, but if it was anything like the last song played this evening, then that comparison does have quite a bit of merit. This song rolled forward with the steady intensity of a speeding train, grabbing the attention of the audience and, surprisingly enough, leaving all of us with a catchy riff to have stuck in our heads on the drive home. Jandek’s vocals were once again intense and powerful, but this time they took a back seat, at least in my mind, to the all-powerful dominating rhythm of the song. It was obvious throughout the night that what was being performed was at least somewhat improvised, and it would be easy to assume, given the loose vibe of the five earlier songs, that pretty much everything you were hearing was improvised on the spot (except for the lyrics, which Jandek read from a book on a music stand). However, this last song made it clear that that was not the case, and that some advance composition had been done in order to determine the nature of the songs to be played. I would love to be able to find out in more detail just how all of this is done, but even now that Jandek has begun performing live, he still surrounds all of his activities with absolute secrecy, and neither he nor any members of his backing bands have been willing to go on record about any details of performance or composition.

In the end, though, it’s not really important, because as long as the results are as satisfying and, indeed, incredible as this show, no one has any room to complain. At show’s end, when we turned our cellphones back on, we discovered that it was 9:30 PM, two and a half hours after the doors had opened. Considering that Jandek had been the only performer, had taken the stage soon after we arrived, and had only played six songs, it seemed hard to believe that so much time had passed. However, knowing that it had, I would now guess that those six songs, which I initially estimated to have been 10 to 15 minutes long apiece, were somewhere around two hours in total, meaning that on average each one was 20 minutes long. I guess I won’t really know the truth until the CD is released, but however long they were, they will certainly hold up to many multiple listenings. Even still, I’m glad I got to see this show. As excited as I was to see Jandek play, it still surpassed all of my expectations. If he plays in your area, do not miss him.