"Old Knit" Benefit for The Stone -- Town Hall 3/1/07

zorn.jpgThe Stone, John Zorn's (photo left) Lower East Side club, pays the entire door to the performing musicians and supports itself with monthly benefit nights, mostly at the location. This exception was a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Knitting Factory produced by the Knit's original owner, Michael Dorf, who in his opening remarks from the stage said, "It's felt a lot like a reunion." To the extent that was true for the members of tonight's audience who frequented the club's old space on Houston St., it was a warm and enjoyable experience; the parts of the evening alien to the Old Knit experience, though featuring the biggest names, were the parts that were most problematic.Let's get them out of the way first. Power couple Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, clearly supposed to be the big draw for people who patronize neither The Stone nor either incarnation of the Knitting Factory, have no connection to the Old Knit that I remember, though there was the night at the new location when they were sitting in the balcony with Vaclav Havel and Madeleine Albright talking so loudly amongst themselves that the performer on stage asked them to shut the fuck up (and yes, that performer was John  Zorn).

Closing the first half, Lou Reed was basically a parody of himself. Accompanied by longtime guitar sidekick Mike Rathke and cellist Jane Scarpantoni, he played "Ecstasy" and "Rock Minuet." Without the punch of a full band, his tuneless singing's meandering was too exposed, and the slipshod lyrics weren't strong enough to carry the pieces. On "Ecstasy" he got off a scorching electric guitar solo, though his solo on "Rock Minuet" started drastically out of key, then drifted into unimpressive noodling. Zorn joined for the latter song and contributed an alto sax solo much more conservative than his work earlier in the evening. Give Reed credit for one thing, though: he's one of the few 65-year-old men (he turned 66 the following day) who can wear black leather and look truly cool rather than foolish.

Opening the second half, Laurie Anderson was abominable. Playing solo, jabbing erratically at an electric keyboard, her music built up none of the stoic momentum of her fuller albums, instead sounding clumsy. But of course her thing is really words, and Anderson tripped up there as well. She took smug superiority to new levels of offensiveness with a long story about a river trip with a Buddhist group (which she went with) paired with a group of incest survivors she put down for being more talkative than the Buddhists wanted for what they thought would be a silent trip. Nice sense of perspective, right? I did enjoy an earlier part of the text, but since that was just her paraphrasing the Zen poet Dogen (1200-1253), give him the credit, not her. Even when, on her next number, she went off on a political rant where I'm on her side, I found her infuriating. It's self-satisfied elitism like hers that gives liberals a bad name.

The rest of the program was both more relevant to the theme of the evening and more enjoyable. As noted already, Dorf started the proceedings with a short talk, most notably delivering a sad list of Knit favorites who have died, including Sonny Sharrock, Leroy Jenkins, Sun Ra, Thomas Chapin, and Tom Cora.

The music got off to a good start with an all-star group. Alto saxophonist Roy Nathanson vibraphonist Bill Ware, and bassist Brad Jones, half of the Jazz Passengers, teamed with Joe Lovano, clarinetist Don Byron, and drummer Ben Perowsky playing a boppish ditty (which might have been a Thelonious Monk tune, and certainly sounded like him). Lovano soloed first, going more 'outside' than he usually does as a leader, which is why seeing him in contexts such as tonight's is always such a pleasure. Byron and then Nathanson followed with spotlight turns, and Ware played a Monk-ish solo including a section backed by a horn chart. The horns traded fours with Perowsky for awhile, Jones proved that bass solos can be interesting, and then the perky head returned to end this segment.

Next up was one of those uncategorizable artists who made the Old Knit such a creative hotspot, Rebecca Moore. Singing and playing violin, she led a band with another violinist, a cellist, two electric guitars, electric bass, and drums. Her Bjork-like vocals were as piquant as ever; the music was delicate, eerie, and mournful, yet also playful, and full of sonic variety as she expertly varied the thickness of the textures, sometimes having just the violins and cello play, but never allowing anything as obvious as a solo. She did engineer a huge climax, however, building momentum under the repeated phrase "let it go" until a final release returned the music to just the three strings.

As would be the case all night, next up was something completely different. DJ Spooky was going to show a Soviet propaganda film acquired on a recent trip to Angola, but technical problems nixed that. Unperturbed, he launched into an epic duet with Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo. Spooky's contribution at first was a lengthy sample of a free jazz drum solo, its irregular prodding answered by Ranaldo waving his heavily amped guitar around while banging its strings with drum sticks, then tormenting the strings manually and setting off hums and bursts of feedback. Spooky switched to an electronica beat and Ranaldo followed with slightly more normal (strapped on, using both hands) but still atonal strum-und-drang, though he soon went back to waving the guitar around and then began whacking its head stock on the floor and dragging it as Spooky turned off the beats and went to a high-pitched keyboard pattern. After a quick "Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida" snippet from Spooky, Ranaldo leaned his instrument against the amp and played the effects pedals. He's done this sort of thing for a long time, but it's still fresh and invigorating.

Trumpeter Steven Bernstein, whose groups Spanish Fly and Sex Mob were near-constant Knit presences, was next on the bill, joined by Fly tuba player Marcus Rojas and guitarist Marc Ribot, with Jones and Sex Mob drummer Perowsky returning. Free improvisation with lots of space led into a funky, jazz head. Bernstein soloed by nagging at a few notes, the asymmetry of their arrangement keeping them interesting. Rojas began his solo with extended techniques, then actual notes; Ribot was as funky as I've ever heard him. Alas, they were signaled to wrap it up long before their natural momentum would have dictated, but that's the way it goes at these sorts of gigs.

Then came the man who had the most at stake this evening, John Zorn, starting with a duo with laptop artist Ikue Mori. Zorn set up an altissimo pattern with circular breathing under which Mori wove rapid, glitchy sounds and then very high, long tones. It was very abstract, yet quite visceral. They were the first act to get space for a second piece, on which they were joined by Ribot, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Calvin Weston. Mori kicked it off with a harsh sawmill blast and then the new additions hit with a sonic assault that subsumed her contribution into a massive whole in which it was no longer distinguishable. Ribot dropped out, revealing Mori's sounds again, and Zorn stepped into the gap. This burst of high-energy ruckus had raised the evening to a high peak, but then came Reed, followed by intermission, during which it was announced that we had witnessed the first collaboration of Reed and Zorn. Yippee.

After Anderson came one of the Knit's great success stories. Mike Doughty started out there (at age 21) as doorman and occasional bartender and went on to fame as the leader of Soul Coughing. Tonight he and Andrew "Scrap" Livingston played guitars, so the askew grooves of Soul Coughing were not to be heard (and were missed on "Janine" from their first album), but Doughty's dry, quirky humor was enough on the two more recent tunes.

The capper to the evening was supposed to be Medeski, Martin & Wood. Well, Wood couldn't make it, but I wasn't crying about that. MM&W started out great but in recent years have mostly pandered to the jam band scene, applying their considerable talents more fruitfully on various side projects. Wood's absence opened up a slot for another Old Knit regular, bassist/singer Oren Bloedow, and that was good news. They started out freeform, then coalesced into a rawly funky riff/groove capped by a shrill Medeski organ solo almost avant-garde in its weirdness yet utterly coherent. Next came a Bloedow song with him singing a refrain of "what if there's not such thing as love." It was quietly brilliant, one of the highlights of the evening. After that, guitarist Gary Lucas joined them. He deserved a solo slot, or an appearance with his band, rather than having to fit into another band, but he still shone when he was given the chance. Again the group started out freeform and gradually shifted into funk, at which point Steve Bernstein reappeared, this time with his slide trumpet, leading a line of Nathanson, Rojas, and Moore. When things got abstract again, Lucas delivered a screaming atonal solo.

Then it was time for the grand finale. Another Knit regular who deserved more time appeared, singer Jennifer Charles, and a rollicking, shambolic version of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" ("it was twenty years ago," remember?) kicked off with Moore and the other violinist, Medeski, Martin, Bloedow, Ribot, Lucas, Scarpantoni, Livingston, Bernstein, Dunn, and Rojas, some on random percussion, with Doughty eventually returning as well. Things were fairly scrappy until Bernstein set up a riff, Medeski and Martin fell in with a funky groove, and except for Doughty shouting the refrain, the song became practically unrecognizable as a Beatles tune but such a joyous expression of collaboration that it was far more moving than a straight cover would have been, and a most apt close to the night. - Steve Holtje sholtje.jpg"

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who read at various Knit poetry events and spent many more nights, more than he can count, listening to music there. Favorite memories include Last Exit, Myra Melford, Matthew Shipp, dozens of Charles Gayle shows, the night soundman James McLean played Sebastian Cabot's Bob Dylan covers album between sets, and conversations with Irving and Stephanie Stone, for whom Zorn's club is named and who were at the Knit almost every night. Stephanie was front and center in this night's audience as well; it's good to see that some things never change.

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