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- Posted on Aug 5th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
The first party was of relatively immediate impact. Early that morning, finding himself locked out of the friend's house where the band was staying, baritone sax player Dan Bennet climbed back in through a window and a Neighborhood Watch alert quickly turned into a Terror Level Red response, with, per the Ann Arbor-based band's count, 10 squad cars dispensing rifle-bearing officers to rouse the guests at gunpoint.
The experience still had the musicians a bit shaky, keyboard/sax player and leader Elliot Bergman explained before the set. But the music they played, showcasing material from the new 'Ghost Rock' album, bristled with energy and intensity, perhaps turned up a notch in catharsis to the morning wake-up call. (And let's not forget that Fela was no stranger to police and military attack due to his outspokenness in opposition to the Nigerian government.)
And Subotnick? Well, the role goes well beyond Bergman's coveting a rare vinyl LP displayed on the wall of the store, though that desire does explain certain things about the distinctive character of 'Ghost Rock.' Bergman cites Subotnick, known primarily for his constellations of sounds -- generally arrhythmic and amelodic -- generated with the complex (if now primitive) Buchla electronic music systems on his landmark late-'60s albums 'Silver Apples of the Moon' and 'The Wild Bull.' On the surface, what that has to do with the very rhythmic, horn-driven sounds of Nomo (the Fela factor, as the band very much originated playing music owing a great deal to the Nigerian icon) is not entirely clear. But Bergman is an inveterate tinkerer and experimenter, inspired by Subotnick's trailblazing through uncharted territory.
"I love his records and have been sort of trying to get my hands on a Buchla for the last couple of years," he says of the rare instrument. "Haven't had success. Won't ever be able to afford one. But I kind of made my own jury-rigged set-up."
The fruits of that obsession and a love for other vintage electronic instruments are very much evident on "Ghost Rock" and, to a slightly lesser extent, in the band's live sets these days. Whereas Nomo's first two albums played it relatively straight with the Afrobeat-rock, the new material is a conscious move into new territory and new techniques, not surprisingly (or coincidentally) calling to mind the African-inspired hybrids made in the late '80s and early '90s by Brian Eno and David Byrne, both on such Talking Heads albums as 'Remain in Light' and especially on the duo's 'My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.' (http://bushofghosts.wmg.com/home.php)
"Our other albums were documents of the band live," Bergman says. "This is a reverse process. It's still a band playing live a lot in a room, but different sessions laid on top."
Aside from Bergman's electronics, the album brings in two masters of free music -- Chicago avant-garde jazz percussionist Hamid Drake and eclectic world-music/jazz drummer played Adam Rudolph, whose presences help insure an air of in-the-momentness on the recordings.
That's not an issue on the Amoeba stage. The sound is punchy and very much live, as much as it was a year ago when the group played at Spaceland, a club in L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood (and where it would also be playing later this day). With three drummers/percussionists, two or three horns (Bergman sometimes switches from keys to sax) and the rumbling bass of Jamie Register, there is no real alternative. And the love of the African (and other) roots is as strong as ever. Several of the group members, Bergman included, studied at the University of Michigan under visiting ethnomusicology professor and master drummer Antoinette Kudoto (who played in the band at one point and now runs a music school for street children in her native Ghana), while trumpeter Ingrid Racine is currently on hiatus from the group having traveled to Mali to study the balafon and drummer Dan Piccolo is also pursuing tabla. Bergman himself has a passion for Indonesian gamelan and has taken singing lessons in India.
And, of course, Subotnick isn't the only influence of the group's current direction, with artists from Can to Miles Davis to Steve Reich to Funkadelic listed on the Nomo Myspace page, fueling the journey from Afrobeat to experimental rock -- arguably the opposite of Talking Heads' movement. It has been a bit of an adventure, Bergman admits.
"The band had to learn to play the stuff after it was finished," he says. "And we've introduced a sampler to the live band, jumping into the 21st century. Everyone has to play to the loop now. We used to just sort of roll in and do the gigs jazz-band style, not worry much about sound check. But I don't think we have any qualms about it -- it's the only way to achieve the sounds we want. People have been wondering if it might change the overall vibe, but I think it still keeps the same vibe."
Might have to watch out for the Afrobeat police, though.