It was the only day I could make, due to a host of weekend commitments including Mother’s Day. But for the past couple of years, I’d thought about making the two-hour drive to Sacramento for at least one day of the festival, or even to check out the Monday-night shows at Luna’s Cafe some week. It was a matter of setting the time aside on my calendar and just doing it.
Luna’s and Bows and Arrows are in an older part of Sacramento, where the streets form the number/letter grid that’s found in every Central Valley city. (Luna’s is near 16th and N, for instance).
I expected a dusty, decaying downtown, but Sacramento’s old town is lush with the calming, shady trees. Old homes — not decaying and maybe more importantly not turned into McMansions — abut pockets of gentrification, such as the stately brick Safeway complex that faces Bows and Arrows.
It’s not all perfect. Just down the street was a closed-down restaurant that clearly hadn’t had a long lifespan. But it’s the kind of neighborhood you root for, a place that wouldn’t be bad for a leisurely afternoon. The weather was comfortably cool on the night I arrived, and the neighborhood would have been a nice place for a stroll.
Bows and Arrows itself is a Bohemian neighborhood in-a-box: a clothes boutique up front, a cozy cafe in the back, and a small art gallery in the space joining the two. There weren’t many tables, but the place overall was spacious. I could see making this my home for four hours.
The first act played on the outdoor patio, starting at 6:30 p.m. when the sun was still bright and the cool evening air was settling in. They were the Element Brass Band, an ensemble of funky horns with soulful jazz soloing and a party attitude.
Element isn’t quite a marching band, although their low end is held down by sousaphones and a bass drum. They’re closer to a funk band. They sing, with simple call-and-response phrases that get the whole band chanting along. “I feel like funkin’ it up / Feeeel like funkin’ it up,” went the opening number. Big fun.
Festival organizer Ross Hammond planned this night well: Element started the program with the most crowd-pleasing, easy-to-love music, and it would get progressively more “different” from there.
Element wasn’t avant-garde stuff by any stretch, but they were a lot of fun and got the crowd on the festival’s side. Sitting on the bright, sheltered porch, with a beer in hand and a cup of corn-tomatillo soup at the ready, I was plenty happy.
The patio filled to standing capacity, and much of the crowd lingered with the band afterward. The rest of us went inside, where things got more serious and electric.
Gentleman Surfer played a set of vicious math rock, with a splintering sound and complex changes — prog sent through a particle collider. The music on their recent album, Blalks, is more even-handed in it complexity, a geometry easier to grasp. The stuff they gave us was more of a precision assault, with the band in perfect but relentless odd-time lock-step. Any groove or melody that emerged got perverted with a frenetic shift out of meter. Even the poppy parts never got too poppy.
“How do you rehearse that music?” asked one audience member (who later turned out to be part of the Braxton ensemble, so he knew a thing or two about complex music).
Gentleman Surfer turns out to be led by drummer Jon Bafus, and while he was boisterous for most of the set, toward the end he turned in an amazing solo, full of fast, quiet thundering — proof that he knew what he was doing. That was impressive.
By now it was 8:30, and the place was still hopping. Culture was alive on a suburban Thursday night.
Lovely Builders is the duo of Scott Amendola (drums) and Ross Hammond (electric guitar; you’ll recognize his name as the festival organizer mentioned earlier). They asked for no photography during their set, so I’ve cribbed a photo from their MySpace page.
They played one long improvisation with a coolly sustained sense of drama, the mood surging and receding through open jazz territory. Here, Hammond picked quaint rhythms to back up an airy, bustling drum segment; there, Amendola toned down to a trance-like jam on the toms while Hammond tested shimmering chords. Contemplative stretches would eventually spark into angrier, intense moods full of sunburst chords and thunderous drumming.
In a sense, it was the most “difficult” of the four acts, but it seemed to have enough jam-band elements to keep the non-jazzers enticed. They might have stretched it a little longer than they should have, but they cranked up the energy for a satisfying ending.
Phillip Greenlief’s band had the most difficult set in a technical sense, but the grouping of a dozen or so musicians made it easy to watch. He’d come up from Oakland to lead a Sacramento ensemble in Anthony Braxton’s Composition 255, one of the early Ghost Trance Music pieces.
(He’d originally aimed for Composition 344, but it was too much: “We could not have done that one with one-and-a-half rehearsals,” he said, introducing the piece.)
Braxton’s compositions are modular, so No. 255 got interspersed with music by Pauline Oliveros, Greenlief, and Erik Satie. The breaks were evident, as the band would slip out of the “trance” and into a freer interlude, usually peppered with solos — and then they’d snap back into step.
If you’re not familiar with Ghost Trance Music, it’s based on a maddening, non-steady pulse that, on the surface, can seem like the musical equivalent of a guy reciting pi. But there’s much more going on, as I mentioned here — and when you’ve got a large group of friends performing, it almost develops a party atmosphere.
Yes, the ongoing pulse was there, with the bumps and deviations and the strident tone, the elements that separate GTM pieces from Glassian minimalism. It seemed less convoluted than other GTM works, though — maybe I’m kidding myself there, but I did start thinking it before learning that No. 255 was an earlier piece.
The band was driven by two basses and a drummer, fronted by a mix of strings and woodwinds. They also had a tuba player who would occasionally switch to harmonica — harmonica! Greenlief played as well, taking some sparkling circular-breathing solos, and he conducted the group, counting off the beat to start each new Braxtonian phase.
Braxton’s music can strike people as cold, but Greenlief’s enthusiastic conducting added life and energy. It really did feel celebratory.
Everything was finished just after 10:00, and Bows and Arrows stayed open through the aftermath. A crowd of young beer-drinkers had gathered around the cafe section, while the musicians collectively lingered in the gallery and boutique — friends talking about the music, or just catching up on one another’s lives. In terms of mood, it was a fitting end to the night. I hope the rest of the festival was just as uplifting.