Unfinished Fiery Pesto

Matthew Friedberger/FF
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
While I didn't go the full nine yards and whip up a batch of pesto, I did harvest and clean a bunch of basil in case we got a killing frost. Today it will take only 2 minutes in the food processor before I have delicious fresh pesto, and further, right now, my whole house smells good. And yes, I did go to the Fiery Furnaces at Shank last night, too.

Openers Pit Er Pat, from Chicago, seem to have that second city brooding cloud hanging over them -- they barely acknowledged the audience, and I wasn't sure if this was because they were shy people or were just hipper than me and didn’t see the need to be at all engaging. The first thing they actually said into the microphone (that wasn't a song) was to ask the sound man to beef up the monitor, and then, almost seemingly in afterthought, said hello to the audience. They were skilled (I see "Jazz-influenced" in a lot of lit about them), and "experimental" in that they used samples and other noise elements to augment their three piece (bass, keyboards/guitar, and virtuoso drums) sound. Musically, the drummer was the most interesting. But despite all the experimentation with sounds, they seemed to stay in a fairly narrow slice of dynamics (quiet and brooding, even with forceful but intricate drumming), with some songs being nothing more than a variation on a two-chord change. That's where the skill came in: they had a good feeling for when they needed to change up something after taking those two chords as far as they could take them. Right when I'd be getting bored, they'd change or add something to keep me listening. But as for those two chords, I had to wonder if perhaps they knew any major chords. The whole minor or strange chord thing was cool for a while, and they played a short set, which for this sort of thing worked, because more than 40 minutes of them and their minor key brooding would have gotten tedious.

If (as I've been often consoled as reagards my own voice) rock and roll singing is hollering in tune, then the Fiery Furnaces' Eleanor Friedberger is having a conversation with you in tune. She doesn't draw out her phrasing like "vocalists" do, but she does change the subject a lot in her music conversation, and she's got much too much to say to waste time holding notes like a "vocalist" would do.

What I really did like was the definite change from the brooding of the openers. Eleanor came on stage like she was meeting us for lunch to chat about things both intense and whimiscal, and she varied her delivery accordingly. She addressed us all like she was genuinely happy to be there, and set the tone. And that tone was the feeling not of a rock show or concert, but four musicians who had their friends over to the basement to show us "Hey, check out what we're working on now. Whatcha think?" and pull out whatever they felt like playing. They certainly aren't experimenting to show how cool they are: they're not hipper than thou. Not knowing what to expect in terms of attitude (from all the press), I actually in fact took an instant liking to Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger. They seem like genuinely down-to-earth people who really wanted to try new things and see how they worked and not be afraid of showing their varied influences. But while Pit Er Pat may have taken some of their ideas too far and risked tediousness, sometimes the Fiery Furnaces didn't take some of their great ideas far enough -- almost leaving them unfinished --and thus risked leaving me wanting.

A lot of critics/writers go on and on about how the Fiery Furnaces challenge conventional songwriting. Well, they do, and that's good. The comparaisons to much of their later songs (and performances) to the Who's "A Quick One" are apt -- the Furnaces did a lot of stringing together little song-lets into long suites. But here's the thing about challenging conventional songwriting: sometimes conventional songwriting stands up to, if not wins, the challenge. While all this works on a few epic pieces, this seemed to be the theme of their show last night. Like the backdrop they hung with sentence fragments and lyric excerpts behind them that took me some staring at before I realized the color changes formed two Fs for "Fiery Furnaces," the set, as well as songs within the set, had to be viewed as a whole to pick up the big picture.

I think the intent was to put across a set that felt planned, rehearsed, but with room to improvise should the feeling grab them, but still maintain the big picture they painted. It's early in the tour, so I'm sure it's still got some jelling to do, but even though they took "requests" it certainly wasn't random. They may have been limited by the fact that there were no guitars -- just a bass, drums, and Matthew Friedberger's set of keyboards, including a standard electric piano, a farfisa, and an gool ol analog moog type thang. And I do suspect they place that limitation purposely to force themselves to approach a live show differently than their studio work, thrusting them out of what may have been a comfort zone, and in the spirit of experimentation, perhaps yieldieng interesting results.

Eleanor loops her mike cord
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
Because they had just released the new "Widow City" a few days ago, I expected a lot from that, and got it, and it whets the appetite for a listen with full studio accroutements. But I was still hoping to hear some of their songs that -- at the risk of sounding like some popmeister who just doesn't get it -- were their (Alt) radio "hits" -- like maybe one of those first three cuts from "Gallowbird's Bark" that grabbed me by the throat and forced me to listen. Or maybe "Bitter Tea" radio hits like "Teach Me Sweetheart" or "Benton Harbor Blues" or maybe even my favorite sweet little ditty, "Waiting to Know You." They ended the set with a Gallowsbird's cut, "Don't Dance Her Down" that Eleanor interspersed with lyrics from the old folksong she covered on Blueberry Boat, "Single Again" (which lyrically was a ghastly combination - -Bravo!) That brings me back to my earlier statement: it wouln't be a crime to finish a whole song, conventionally, without being almost afraid of leaving me a satisfied pop customer. It's why I was ambivalent in risking a work night show to begin with. On a weekend, I would have been enchanted by an evening of experiments, happy to put up with the failures and roughness to see a cross section cutaway of genuine artists at work before the polish. But on a work night, no, I needed the executive version, the finished, polished set. Their experiements are great, but when they go pop, it's great too: somebody needs to tell them it's neither a sellout nor a crime.

Final verdict: I'll definitely pick up Fiery Furnaces' latest record, "Widow City" and will probably love it because I liked what I heard at the show. See them again next time they come to town? If it's on a weekend, "very likely" if nothing else is going on and Brian stays home so I don't have to pay for a sitter. On a weeknight when I have to work the next day? "Highly unlikley." I had to get up, as usual, at 5:30 this morning after only 6 or so hours of sleep, and I feel like crap. If I'm going to feel that way at work because I went to a show the night before, the show can't be just interesting. It has to blow me away. (See also: The Fleshtones, Los Straightjackets, Candye Kane, George Clinton, The Yardbirds, The Asylum Street Spankers.) At least I'm having pasta tossed with freshly made pesto for dinner tonight.


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