The Henry Flynt debacle

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On Friday at the Empty Bottle, composer, writer, philosopher, violinist, and art-world gadfly Henry Flynt gave an incredibly rare performance as part of the annual Adventures in Modern Music festival. It followed on the heels of several east-coast gigs this year, his first since the mid-80s, and from what I've read this show followed the same template those did. Joined by his niece Libby Flynt (a rockabilly guitarist who'd briefly been in Band of Susans), they played electric guitars over a mind-numbing high-decibel loop that consisted of a single organ chord and a hammering beat that sounded like a one-second Stereolab sample. If that sounds like fun, just wait.

Before I continue, I should say that I've enjoyed the deluge of Flynt reissues that've been emerging over the past few years, most of them on the local Locust label. On those discs he tackles everything from rural Americana to Indian ragas, giving the music an appealingly homemade feel with his wonderfully ragged and rugged violin playing. He's no virtuoso, but he clearly has enough good ideas to make the music gripping--or at least he once did. On Friday his guitar playing showed no evidence of that genius. As his niece wove together competent if shopworn rock and blues riffs, Flynt sounded downright lost.

His fractured, half-formed licks were recognizably from the same well of American roots music that Libby was drawing on, but his stumbling articulation made him sound like a three-year-old trying to read Latin. I couldn't hear a connection between his guitar and the tedious backing track, and I couldn't hear a connection between one of his lines and the next. A stack of paper sat on a music stand in front of him, and he repeatedly shuffled the pages--but if that was sheet music, his playing hardly reflected it. And whenever he took a swig of water, he took off his guitar and set it down first, only to strap it back on after swallowing. Several times he gestured to his niece to turn down her amp, which seemed ill-considered since she was the only one holding the set together. Finally, after 50 minutes or so, he gestured to the sound man to cut the backing track. As the audience applauded, Flynt broke out in a smile--something of a relief, since during the show he'd worn the stern face of a cranky old man who'd enjoy stealing candy from children--and bowed.

I suppose it's possible that this was performance art and I just missed the message. But to me it sounded like Flynt was either losing it or so full of himself that he never doubted his right to stage such a mess.

Today's playlist:

Various artists, When Gospel Was Gospel (Shanachie)
The Necks, Townsville (ReR)
Milton Banana Trio, Milton Banana Trio (EMI, UK)
Emmylou Harris, All I Intended to Be (Nonesuch)
Gwilym Simcock, Perception (Basho)

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