Jack o’ the Clock at the Plough

DSCN2560As I pulled up to park in Berkeley, the Warriors were on the verge of tying Game 3 against San Antonio. I’d come to the Starry Plough to see Jack o’ the Clock in a too-rare live appearance, but they were due to appear last, and this game — which I’d turned on for background noise — was getting good. I decided to linger in the car to hear the team take the lead, figuring Jack o’ the Clock wasn’t due to start yet anyway.

It seemed like a tough call at the time, but it got easier. As history has now recorded, Golden State not only did not take the lead but collapsed immediately from that point. It took about five minutes (real time, not game time) for me to give up and headed into the Plough — where, ironically, the game was on TV.

The Warriors’ collapse gave me time to see the whole set by Darren Johnston’s Broken Shadows, which mixed old-time songwriting with gypsy jazz and dashes of world music. Johnston is a trumpeter who I know through his more out-jazz leanings — albums like Reasons for Moving and projects such as OrchestROVA. This music was closer to what he’s done with the Nice Guy Trio (here’s a video), but drawing on a blend of traditions.

The songs were equal parts festival and heartbreak, with lyrics taken from Johnston’s “Letters from Home” project, where he’s asked immigrants to write letters to their younger selves. (It’s part of a larger project being presented June 22 at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.)

DSCN2558Johnston fronted the band with most of the lead vocals, sometimes adding solos of bright, emotional trumpet tones. The rhythm was held down by acoustic bass and a bass drum, for a very turn-of-the-century look, and most of the soloing duty was handled by a monstrously good violinist (barely visible in the photo at right), hacking and sawing and skittering his way up and down the fingerboard with abandon.

Jack o’ the Clock draws partly from the same well, with a love of times-gone-by that’s reflected in the faded, cracked photos of their album covers. To that folky base, principal songwriter Damon Waitkus adds the complex melodies of prog rock and the depth of classical composing. Bassoon and violin in the mix help create a different sound, rich layers to peer through.

Evangelista, Waitkus, and McLoughlin. Drummer Jordan Glenn is somewhere behind them.
Everybody wave to Jordan.

I’ve written about these guys’ studio work and live work before. This was another solid show, and being live does matter; it infuses an intensity and even ferocity to the chamber-folk-prog songs, a spirit difficult to capture in the studio.

They opened with a catchy rock song, probably called “Down Below,” which packed a heavy beat and some electric-guitar drama from Karl Evangelista, who sat in on a few songs. The set also included “Disaster,” one of the strongest songs off the new album, All My Friends…, and “Schlitzie, Last of the Aztecs, Lodges an Objection in the Order of Things,” a favorite of mine from the previous album. Much of the set was taken up by new songs; I didn’t take notes, but I remember them sounding good.

Admit it: Two flutes in a band is pretty kick-ass.

In addition to Evangelista, other guest artists included Johnston, Cory Wright and Ivor Holloway adding horns to at least one song early in the set. Most of the time, though, it was the canonical five members of the band — mostly minus violinist Emily Packard, who did join for a couple of numbers but spent most of the set tending to her baby. Lead singer Damon Waitkus brought his hammered dulcimer, which appears on the albums but hadn’t been at the last live show I saw. It produces that old-timey piano sound that helps sepia-tint the music. Kate McLoughlin on bassoon also added solid harmony vocals. And I really do love Jason Hoopes’ electric bass work.

You could say no band in the world gets as many gigs as they deserve, I suppose, but it’s particularly true of this one. That they’ve kept together for years, working at the music, is evident both on stage and on record, and I hope they’re able to keep it going.

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