Woods, live at the Joshua Light Show Festival, Abrons Art Center, May 13, 2010
Joshua White is a New York artist who began his career creating liquid light shows for Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in the late 1960s and early 70s. The Joshua Light show was in residence at the Fillmore and provided visuals for all the major artists associated with the classic psychedelic and heavy rock scene of the era, from Hendrix to Joplin.
After the scene faded, White moved into professional television production. Although his trippy visuals were forever immortalized in the memories of clued-in boomers and the freaky party scene from Midnight Cowboy, White would not revisit his light show past for nearly 40 years. In 2004, he teamed with artist Gary Panter to recreate some of the light shows for a one-off at Anthology Film Archives. Renewed interest in the classic light shows has peaked in recent years, and White has been performing regularly with his ensemble of visual alchemists and artists to accompany acts like Yo La Tengo, as well as various iterations of the Darmstadt New Music series and one-offs at the Whitney Museum and Lincoln Center.
The Joshua Light Show Festival, which premiered last week in New York, is a festival of contemporary psychedelic music, curated by Nick Hallett and paired with the light show’s distinctive visual component. The festival ran for over consecutive nights (the opening night with Steve Moore and itsnotyouitsme, and closing night with Dean & Britta and Spectrum) at the Abrons Art Center, a community center at the Henry Street Settlement, which has its own history as an incubator of avant-garde practice, including big name past associates like John Cage, Jackson Pollock, and Martha Graham.
The theater is modestly sized with a stately, classic design — a bit rough around the edges, but certainly a change of pace from the DIY spaces and grungy clubs and bars where you’d usually expect to find acts like Woods and MV EE. The thrill of seeing them in a classier, more traditional venue — with all of the attendant legitimacy that the Joshua Light Show implies — was central to the evening’s appeal. Woods and MV EE have a longstanding association, centered around the friendship between Matt Valentine (MV) and Jeremy Earl, Woods’ lead singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter. The similarities between the two groups are not immediately apparent, but once you scratch the surface, their artistic kinship begins to make sense: both forge their own unique universe of sound, populated with intimate and personal references.
Woods’ debut, At Rear House, was named after the small Brooklyn studio where they record, while MV EE records are brimming with allusions to recording locales like “Maximum Arousal Farm” or “Privacy Mountain.” Within these private spaces, both hone a craft that is singularly spooky and fragile, but compulsively listenable. Woods’ uncanny knack for hummable melodies and finely tuned sense of how to play noise and pop elements against one other to sustain tension make for an arresting combination. MV EE tend to prefer dissonant instrumental passages, always threatening to dissolve into complete cacophony — until they deploy that perfect folk-pop vocal hook or momentum-building guitar lick, that is, pushing the track into overdrive.
MV EE, the core duo of Erika Elder and Matt Valentine — here augmented by backing group The Golden Road, consisting of John Moloney on drums and Ron Schneiderman on bass, long-time associates of freewheeling psych collective Sunburned Hand of the Man — kicked off the night with “Satisfied,” a set staple that has appeared in numerous guises throughout the years. This particular rendition was unually straightforward and down-tuned, perfectly in line with the blue hues of the light show backdrop.
When the group transitioned into “Easy Livin’,” a classic rock tune dedicated by Valentine to the late Jack Rose (presumably with the hope that the sorely missed Rose is living the easy life somewhere better), the light show began to reflect the performers’ increasingly lively musicianship, transitioning to a bright orange and red color scheme. Suddenly, Valentine let loose with a devastating guitar solo. This virtuosic attack set the tone for the rest of the set, with each tune beginning as a head-bopping country rock piece and slowly careening into a full-on freak-out. The light show kept pace, vesting each successive piece with a dominant visual theme — liquid bubbles floating in space, for example, or even a vintage marionette, which flickered briefly into view during one particularly fuzzy passage. Whenever the group took a hard left into abstract territory, Valentine would refer to the resulting cacophony as “nukin’ it.” As an apt description as any.
After exploring nearly every side of their sound — including a pretty, but unexpectedly faithful take on Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” — the band decided to end on “Tea Devil,” with Valentine welcoming the audience to “roll in as they roll out.” After a tentative start, the tune saw Valentine bring out his modified banjo for some free-form jamming, his instrument sounding more like a sitar than a bluegrass mainstay. Valentine beat the banjo pickups into submission while drummer Moloney came into his own on the track, laying down a confident percussive backdrop.
The group eventually ended up at “Get Right Church,” a tune that has been percolating in the MV EE catalog for years, and that appears to change drastically from one performance to another. Just a month ago, the group played to a packed house at Silent Barn — with Michael Flower sitting in on bass — and delivered a “Get Right Church” as wild and ragged as they come. This evening’s take was more reserved, but hit upon a new fragile beauty, with MV EE closing out the set trading a capella verses as Valentine reluctantly squeezed the last few notes from his guitar. The result, when coupled with the dynamic light show, was a watershed set from the duo.
On record, Woods are a lo-fi pop band who occasionally dabble in noise and extended jamming, but are usually a showcase for the song craft of Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere. Live, however, Woods’ sound can be more unpredictable, as the group expands to four members including G. Lucas Crane, whose custom tapedeck/audio manipulation rig is responsible for the variety of cracks, creaks, and howls that interrupt Woods’ straightforward pop musings.
As Woods filed on stage in silhouette against a green backdrop, Crane lit an incense stick to set the mood and the group took off, jamming on a riff from “From The Horn,” the brief instrumental passage that closes out the first half of their latest LP, At Echo Lake. Next to to G. Lucas Crane’s unwieldy and manic sound-manipulating ways, Kevin Morby’s boyish good looks, focused stance, and retro bass stylings made Woods suddenly feel like a house band for a self-styled hip variety show from the mid-60s. You could almost imagine Ed Sullivan announcing, “And now ladies and gentlemen…Woods!” and the camera panning over to these four dapper gents.
The set was a judicious balance of focused jamming and pop numbers, including a number of tunes from Echo Lake. “Blood Dries Darker,” “Suffering Season,” and “Time Fading Lines” were all given convincing airings. Divorced from the rough home-recorded sound that Woods prefer for their albums — and given the full band treatment with a solid sound system — Woods proved that although they achieve greater acclaim and popularity with each new record, they are more than ready for the big time, and are undoubtedly one of the defining rock bands of the moment.
As the set barreled along, the background expanded from its initial primary color scheme into an active field of suggestive imagery, spilling acid on one of Thomas Kinkade’s bucolic fantasies of America. The contrast between the muscular instrumental passages provided by the Morby and Tarveniere’s solid rhythm section, the fragility of Earl’s echo-laden vocals, and Crane’s unpredictable sonic embellishments was reflected in the light show imagery, which settled into a red and green color palette, suggestive of classic notions of pscyhedelia. Woods reached the home stretch of their set with Crane wielding a trumpet and Earl executing a precise, lengthy guitar solo. He seemed as hesitant as Valentine had been to let the moment end, but eventually relented. As the lights came up, and both bands returned to the stage for a well deserved ovation, Valentine high-fived and shared a valedictory hug with Earl — a charming moment that summed up the collaborative and mutually respectful nature of the evening.
Tags: Abrons Art Center, Erika Elder, G. Lucas Crane, Jarvis Taveniere, Jeremy Earl, John Moloney, Kevin Morby, Matt Valentine, MV & EE, Nick Hallett, Ron Schneiderman, The Golden Road, The Joshua Light Show, Woods