Back Pages #5: Amy X. Neuburg and Men … and the Spatula of Eternity

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

I don’t have much of a story to go with this one. What I have is the spatula:

amyxspatulaIt’s from an Amy X. Neuburg and Men concert at the Starry Plough in Berkeley. They were promoting the album Sports! Chips! Booty!, which came out on the Racer label in 1998. The spatula, made of simple flexible plastic, lasted from then until November 2019. That’s possibly 20 years of flipping kid-sized pancakes and frozen hash browns patties — multiple uses per week, with breaks only for vacations.

I’m not exaggerating. This thing got mileage, and I like to believe it was the last of its litter still in active use. It finally cracked this past November, and after some tense moments in the trauma center (Krazy Glue station), it’s been retired to a place of honor atop my CD cabinet.

Looking at that spatula, really looking at it for the first time in years, made me think about the band. Oh wow, the band.

Amy X. Neuburg has built an impressive career mixing songwriting, electronic percussion, dense loops of precise harmonizing (a one-woman choir), and a prog-rock degree of difficulty. Catchy melodies, thoughtful introspection, and a giddy sense of humor permeate her work, including The Secret Language of Subways (MinMax, 2009), the tour de force suite she wrote for herself and three cellists.

Amy X. Neuburg and Men was a playful prog-pop outfit with Neuburg fronting on lead vocals and percussion while the all-“men” band added backing vocals, usually as a unified block. Her husband, Herb Heinz, played guitar (he released some worthy records himself during this era), and Joel Davel added MIDI-driven xylophone and marimba. In good ’90s prog fashion, the band had a Chapman Stick, played by Micah Ball. J.T. Quillan III didn’t play an instrument but looked good in a tux (and sang), which was part of the whimsy.

Following the more serious Utechma album (Racer, 1995), Sports embraced the band’s goofy side, with tongue-in-cheek artsy tunes like “The Shower Song” But the band was also about crisp musicianship and Neuburg’s gift of rich melody, as on the languid “Orange County.” Live, the band was joyous and bouncing, and I’m sure I saw them at the Starry Plough at least twice.

The spatula was a nod to Sports single, “Big Barbecue.” But the track that really sold me was “Naked Puppets.” It opens with some electronics improvising, then bursts into King Crimson-worthy guitar, some fun rhymes, and a prog-circus finale.

You can hear tracks including “Shower Song” and “Big Barbecue” on Amy X. Neuburg’s website. The band’s albums are available on CD Baby and Amazon, where you can sample other treats such as the cover of King Crimson’s “Waiting Man.”

Outsound Festival: One Weekend Left to Contribute

Source: Outsound; click to go thereIf you want to donate to the Outsound New Music Summit, you might want to do it before Sunday night.

I assume they’d take your contribution no matter what the date. But Sunday night is the deadline to contribute via Indiegogo and, for $100 or more, get a ticket to the dinner held each year for organizers and donors. Held at Berkeley Arts Festival, the dinner will include a set of music by percussionist William Winant and another set by Thea Farhadian (violin) and Amy X. Neuburg (vocals, loops, maybe electronics).

No, I don’t know what’s on the menu. But I do know it’s all for a good cause, a locally produced festival for creative music. Rent Romus has kept the fire burning going on 13 years now.

The Outsound Summit runs July 29 through August 2 at San Francisco’s Community Music Center.

Here’s the lineup:

July 27- August 2, 2014, Co-Presented with KFJC 89.7FM
Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street San Francisco, CA
Advance Tickets:  Brown Paper Tickets
The Bay Area’s New Sound Festival Features Underground and 
Experimental Jazz, Electronics, Noise Art, Spoken Word, Poetry, 
Workshops, and Hands-onInteractive “Touch the Gear” Expo.

Sunday July 27th 1:00 PM
Pianist, composer, and educator Thollem McDonas will lead a
collaboration/improvisation workshop for musicians and non-
musicians alike. 

Monday, July 28th 8:00 PM
Thollem McDonas and participants from the Sunday improvisation 
workshop will perform a set of structured and free improvi-
sation.  This event is free to the public.

Wednesday, July 30th 
Q&A Sessions 7:30 pm, Performance 8:15 pm
PoetryFreqs, a night of spoken word and poetry with electro-
acoustic music.
* Pitta of the Mind (Maw Shein Win – poetry and Amanda 
Chaudhary – electronics)
* Original jazz beat poet Ruth Weiss with electronic pioneer 
Doug Lynner – Buchla Synth,  Hal Davis -  hollow log
* Watkins/Trammel/McZeal (Zachary James Watkins - 
electronics,  Marshall Trammell – drums  with award winning 
poet Amber McZeal)

Thursday, July 31st 
Q&A Sessions 7:30 pm, Performance 8:15 pm 
Guitars, a night showcasing seven talented and provocative 
guitarists Henry Kaiser; Amy Reed & Ross Hammond; Noah 
Phillips & John Finkbeiner; Sandy Ewen & Jakob Pek

Friday, August 1st 
Q&A Sessions 7:30 pm, Performance 8:15 pm
Constructions will bring two extremes together
* Teddy Rankin-Parker/Daniel Pearce Duo,
premiering new works by renowned composer Renee Baker 
* The Deconstruction Orchestra, a mass ensemble of 25 leading 
Bay Area improvising musicians led by tenor saxophonist and 
composer Joshua Allen, who will perform the debut of The 
Structure of Sound and Space, an original deconstructivist-
inspired suite of cell structure game compositions, melding 
together post-modern, free jazz and non-idiomatic improvisa-
tion. Saxophones: Aaron Bennett-as, Sam Flores-ts, John 
Ingle-bs, Matt Ingalls-as/c, Josh Marshall-ts, Dan Plonsey-bs, 
Dave Slusser-ts, Rory Snyder-as, Rent Romus-as, Cory Wright-bs 
Brass: Peter Bonos-trpt, Collete McCaslin-coronet, Matt 
Gaspar-Flugel, Ron Heglin-tuba, Jeff Hobbs-trpt, George 
Moore-trpt, Matt Streich-trombone Rhythm: Henry Kaiser-guitar, 
John Finkbeiner-guitar Timothy Orr-drums, William Winant-drums, 
Lisa Mezzacappa-bass, Matt Montgomery-bass

Saturday, August 2nd 1:00pm
Transformational Voice, an afternoon vocal workshop with 
bodywork/energywork master Jill Burton.
Register at the door or Pre-Register @ Brownpaper Tickets

Saturday, August 2 
Q&A Sessions 7:30 pm, Performance 8:15 pm
Improvisations, featuring three different
groups of improvisers exploring the language of the unknown.
* Obstreperous Doves (Karl Evangelista – guitar, Bill Noertker - 
bass, Nava Dunkelman - percussion, Christina Stanley - violin, 
and Jordan Glenn - drums)
* The Emergency String (X)tet (violins: Mia Bella D'Augelli, 
Jeff  Hobbs, Christina Stanley; lap steel guitar: David 
Michalak; cello: Doug Carroll; bass koto: Kanoko Nishi-Smith; 
and cello/director: Bob Marsh); who will premiere a new work 
in celebration of Bob Marsh’s 70th birthday
* Jill Burton Trio (Jill Burton - voice, Tim Perkis - 
electronics, and Doug Carroll - cello) debuting their 
first-time collaboration

… and here’s what I wrote about last year’s Summit:

Amy X. Neuburg After-Hours

Any show by Amy X. Neuburg and the Cello ChiXtet is a treat, but seeing them play Davies Symphony Hall was irresistible.

They weren’t in the symphony pit, but upstairs, in the second-tier lounge as part of the Davies After Hours series.  There’s a resemblance to an after-hours jazz club: People milling around, buying drinks, and talking over the music.

The motivation for the series, apparently, is the fact that a few hundred people stick around after the symphony for a drink. The crowd was thick, and once the band started playing, the sound drew everyone to that end of the lounge for a look. Click the picture at right, and you can baaarely see Neuburg’s head next to the speaker.

It’s well known that the classical-music crowd is aging, so of the few hundred who started the night, only several dozen were still around after the half-hour mark.  By the end of the band’s 70-minute set, maybe 10 or 20 diehards were still there, including those of us who’d come to the symphony to see Neuburg.

The ChiXtet was created for Neuburg’s song cycle, The Secret Language of Subways.  The songs captivated me back in 2006, as I’d written here and was thrilled when a CD of the songs (including a Peter Gabriel-era Genesis cover they’d been using as an encore) came out last year.

The songs follow the avant-pop formula of Neuburg’s past work, maybe with a dash more intensity given that some of the songs come from staying in New York circa 2001.  The serious songs, like the amazing “One Lie” that opens the cycle, are deeply powerful.  Happier ones, like “Hey” (which opened last night’s set) and “The Gooseneck” are poppy fun. And “Someone Else’s Sleep” has rapidly become one of my favorite songs, possibly of all time. After four years, it still bowls me over.

The CD is great, but you have to see the ChiXtet performing live.  They’re truly enjoying the music, and the visual cues among them help you appreciate the precision in these songs and the work that’s gone into them.  Davies was a high-profile gig for them, and I’m glad for that, but it wasn’t ideal due to the noise.  A lot of the songs’ depth comes from the live looping Neuburg does, of her voice and the cellos, and that was sometimes difficult to hear. And the wordplay in the lyrics — like the similar vowel patterns on different verses in “Shrapnel,” was lost in the din.

It was still a fun set, though, and we even got to hear two newly commissioned songs. Both were based on that night’s symphony program.  One called “Soundproof” took from the main theme of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto No. 1, making for a more somber sound than the group usually has.  Another patterned itself after Berg’s “Lulu Suite,” using a lot of 12-tone rows and some samples from a recorded performance of the suite. And because the “Lulu” opera that Berg was writing has a palindromic structure to the plot, Neuburg wrote this song as a palindrome, including the lyrics. The overall sound was interesting and complicated.

The symphony, by the way, was good.  Guest violinist James Ehnes nailed the violin concerto, not just the fast part sbut the pillowy, soft trilled notes that seemed to come up a lot. His first-movement cadenza was a showcase, as Ehnes played both the main theme and a bass line, creating the illusion of two or even three violinists playing at once. Lots of fireworks, and the music was easy on the ears — the audience loved it.

Here’s Neuburg and the ChiXtet performing “The Gooseneck,” a video taken from the 2006 premiere of the complete song cycle.

Playlist: Aug. 28, 2009

KZSU playlist for Friday, Aug. 28, 3:00 to 7:10 p.m.

Full playlist is viewable here. I actually stayed on the air until 9:00 p.m., but the last two hours were rock and whatnot; if you’re dying to know what was played, click here.

Most of the program was built around Joe Maneri tracks, to note his passing. I’ll put up a more thorough explanation of those later. A couple of other noteworthy spins:

….. Amy X. Neuburg and the Cello ChiXtet have released the long-awaited Secret Language of Subways, and I finally managed to give it a spin. It deserves its own entry, but you can see what I think here.

….. The Ted Daniel Quintet LP, Tapestry, got reissued by Porter Records a couple of years ago. Great loft-jazz work chracterized by vibes, electric piano, and electric bass — very much a product of 1974. The session was recorded from a show at Ornette Coleman’s loft back then, and while the sound fidelity is wanting, there’s no denying the free-jazz intensity of the music.

I haven’t been updating the blog much during the dog days of summer, partly due to work, partly due to play. I’m managing to keep on top of the radio shift, at least.