Arriving outside Oto just before opening time, my ears were greeted by a roaring blast of raw noise. Not what I expected from a Charalambides sound check. Maybe I’d come on the wrong night? No, this was the sound of Hitodama, the first of the guest artists on this, the first of a two-night stopover at OTO for the Texas alternative duo.
Hitodama is Dave McMahon. Once everyone was inside and settled he warned us that his set would get loud, really loud, and it did. It started off innocent enough, with McMahon extracting from his vast array of effects and electric guitar-as-sound generator a gritty introductory drone, in texture not unlike the base sound of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But that grainy wash of sound grew into a drone, and then became a roar. Nothing too original, but very finely calibrated. And the E-bowed thread he wove into the climactic screed was a really lovely touch, it’s effect almost that of a plainchant contralto.
The clean intonation of Dean McPhee couldn’t have provided more of a contrast. McPhee’s beautiful solo tremolo and Telecaster meditations blend many influences – here a hint of John Renbourn’s Sir John, here a touch of Bill Frisell’s Americana at its most effecting – but none overtly. His style is languid and deceptively simple, based on cleanly picked notes rich in harmonics and leisurely melodic expositions, un-fussily ornamented. This was the second time I’ve seen (and reviewed) McPhee this year, and as before some of the compositions he played were brand new and unchristened, the exception being set-closer “Rolling River”. Some of my friends thought McPhee’s set was simply “boring”; others, like me, were fully taken with it.
The last of the Saturday night guests, The Michael Flower Band is a one-man affair: just Flower, his guitar and the usual array of effects boxes, some laid out on the floor, others set atop a modified ironing board. His one long extemporized solo was wide-ranging, taking in both an Afro-Caledonian passage with xylophonic associations and another, more mantric, in USA west-coast raga style. Later on he locked into a looping, melodic groove with a clear tune susceptible to riffs, developed with skirling loops and a metronomic clipped percussion sample. It went on a bit, but I enjoyed it. Still, the night was wearing on: 10:30 pm and another fifteen minute set change before Charalambides.
The only guest spot on Sunday night was taken by Padang Food Tigers, a.k.a. Spencer Grady and Steve Lewis, a.k.a. Rameses III. They opened with gentle melodic interplay on acoustic guitar and banjo, as tranquil as it was lyrical. A second, longer piece gradually layered different elements over a sensitive acoustic guitar accompaniment: first a bowed thumb piano, then marbles slowly tracing the parabola of a brass bowl, then a haunting, unaccompanied harmonica solo before another banjo/guitar duet picked over the lilting acoustic melody, to the delicate playback of traces of all of the preceding elements. I found the experience spellbinding and wholly intimate.
Christina Carter and Tom Carter played as Charalambides to a packed house on Saturday night, and then performed individual solo sets to a more intimate gathering on Sunday.
The couple, now divorced, are both quiet and introspective, sharing no words or eye contact, though they do speak, briefly, to their audience. Their set draws heavily on their latest album, Exile, and the bruised, incantatory mourning of tracks such as “Pity Pity Me” and “Before You Go” – “Pity pity me / pity me, I say / pity me, my darling / carry me away”, runs one of Christina’s lyrics – evoke a desolate emotional landscape.
In the duo context Tom Carter’s guitar playing is lucid, spacious and elliptical, creating hiatuses awaiting Christina’s vocal pronouncements. Christina also plays, both harmonica and relatively simple figures on electric guitar, the duo’s lines intertwining less intricately than on record. When together, they actually sound like two solo artists coming together, accommodating each other’s ideas, but that accommodation is the source of their magic; I found the sum of their solo sets less gratifying than their playing as Charalambides. The duo set ended on a tension-breaking crescendo of FX’d electricity that sounded like nothing so much as the release of inarticulate pent-up emotion.
In her solo set, Christina Carter seemed to feed on nervous energy. We could feel it in the irregular percussion drummed out of her shaking leg on the concrete floor. Those simple figures were embellished in a decorative instrumental solo: few chords, rather precise finger-lifts and single-note runs from every part of the fingerboard. She also played slide for the final song, ghost-traces of Ry Cooder’s Texas desert blues.
Christina has measured singing style and clean intonation; a lovely, strong singing voice with clear contours, albeit with a tremulous edge that lends it a sympathetic quality even if you’re not always sure how to take her lyrics, one of which concerns a high school diploma, another a house full of lovely onions that should never be eaten. Evidently, not everything Carter sings is fully serious, but you wouldn’t know that from her delivery.
In Tom Carter’s solo set there were no words. His set seemed to pick up from Christina Carter’s with a similarly Cooder-esque heat haze effect of harmonic suspensions and sustained resonances, but soon firmed up as a more cinematic narrative, with peaks in volume and intensity creating dynamic tension. The rural blues derivations of Charalambides are always palpable in his more expressive playing, but by the close he was producing a sustained roar of feedback and FX overlay, and a deceptive lull preceded a rude irruption of powerful chords that were subject to maximal delay, reverb and sheer volume; suddenly the weekend’s listening had come full circle.