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Rock 'n' Roll: scary mutant country monster

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Even a big fan of Souled American has to admit that the band is and might always be an acquired taste. At Camper Van Beethoveen's epochal show at the Vic last year, the Chicago foursome opened the show with its perfect melange of fractured country and coming-apart-at-the-seams rural blues; I've written before that Souled American is the sound of four musicians coming apart, and that night they balanced chaos and precision expertly, and helped make the show (for me, at least) the concert of the year. Not everyone feels that way, though--a friend says he remembers one rather longish number during which an almost palpable wave of frayed patience swept through the crowd.

I never felt it, but I had to laugh: Souled American isnt an easy band. The idea, as I understand it, is to take country music and strip it of every shred of sentimentality and glitz--of its urban sheen, its fake emotion, and its lowest-common-denominator sensibility. The band then takes what's left and--here's the hard part--turns it inside out. The result is a kind of scary mutant country monster--the Texas Playboys crossed with Wire, say. The band's two main instruments are Joe Adducci's bass and Chris Grigoroff's raspy falsetto. And rather than performing their normal rock-band functions, Jamey Barnard's drums and Scott Tuma's guitar up and wander off in different directions, Barnard casually adding a few beats when the mood strikes him (he's the most self-effacing drummer I've ever heard), and Tama doing an aural approximation of a besotted bum staggering down the street. In the midst of this huge avoidance of responsibility Grigoroff's lazy acoustic strumming becomes the main rhythmic instrument.

The band has its roots in downstate Charleston, where a very young Adducci watched altar boy Grigoroff go about his duties in church. "I was younger," Adducci recalls. "I'd be crawlin' around under the pews and think, hey, there's one of those Grigoroff boys up there." (Grigoroff has half a dozen siblings.)

Much later, Adducci joined Grigoroff in Bloomington to play in a band with the awful moniker the Uptown Rulers. "I don't like to think about it much," winces Adducci. The outfit broke up, and Adducci found himself in Minneapolis playing in a band called P.J. and the Zen Terrorists. But Adducci found that his love of country music and ever-more-baroque style of bass playing weren't elements of shared appreciation ("Can you, um, straighten it out a little bit?"), and he soon followed Grigoroff to Chicago. "It's such a relief to find the right people to play with," Adducci reflects. "You might never find the right combination--that's why there are so many frustrated musicians."

The pair saw Barnard playing in other bands: "We always thought that he was the best drummer in the world, that if we could ever get him we'd be in heaven." Their prayers were soon answered, and with friend-of-friends Tuma Souled American debuted in early 1987. Rough Trade spotted them at the 1988 South by Southwest conference in Austin, and since then the band has been spitting out a record every six months.

Their third and latest, Around the Horn, should be in stores this week. Like predecessors Fe (Souled American for "feel") and Flubber (the title a sort-of homage to Son of Flubber: "I've always been a real fan of Fred MacMurray"), Around the Horn is sweetly enveloping, evocative and dense. Sure it's an acquired taste, but it only takes a few minutes to give yourself over to the swell of Tuma's languid guitar and Adducci's friendly, show-stealing bass. Standouts include "Willdawg," a halting, haunting, plangent instrumental, and Grigoroff's outstanding reading of Lowell George's "Six, Feet of Snow."

The band's album-release show is Saturday at Metro, 3730 N. Clark, with Tragically Hip and the Star Children; the show starts at 11 PM. Call 549-3604 for more information.

Residents in residence report: Rock 'n' roll being what it is, a lot of people get overly excited when confronted with signs of intelligent life in this particular universe; as a consequence, the rather rudimentary "ideas" proffered by a band like the Residents get undue attention. "Cube E: The History of American Music in 3 E-Z Parts" was a smashing success at the Royal-George Theatre last week (the setting was perfect and the band sold more than 2,500 seats over six nights), and for the most part deservedly so. But thematically the piece was a wash. The 3 E-Z parts performed by the four anonymous Residents and two extras--turned out to be meditations on country and western, rhythm and blues, and (their sum, the Residents hoarily propose) Elvis Presley. We learn that C and W is about love and death (to the fractured strains of "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie") and that soul, R & B, gospel, jazz, and spirituals are all integral to black culture in a way that has no real parallel in white culture. (This to the tune of "Shortnin' Bread.") And that Elvis was the King, it turns out, of "need"--hence psychotic renditions of "Love Me Tender," "Burning Love," and "Teddy Bear." The best that can be said for the onstage movements was that they were probably intended parodically--most of them were just ersatz takes on Mummenschanz and garden variety 20th-century American ballet, and the three dancers (Resident A and two extras) were something less than pros.

What the show was really about was stage dynamics and sound manipulation. The band's fabled anonymity is preserved via spooky penlight "eyes" affixed to their temples, effectively obscuring the band members' faces. While Resident A moved about, Residents B, C, and D huddled over their MIDIfied keyboards (and occasional guitar and sax), choking out paroxysms of sound, and paroxysms they were: the band's conceptual understanding of synthesizers is just astounding. They piled on and peeled off layers of sounds continuously; rhythms and riffs stopped and started, almost every time jerking the music in new directions. The melodies--lots of them--floated up and around; with the exception of some (probably obligatory) noisemeistering in part two, they were almost always comforting and engaging, unless, as on some of the Presley songs, something more ominous was called for.

The biggest surprise of all was Resident A: rock 'n' roll isn't about anonymity, and the challenge of confronting an audience without technically establishing a personality is a tough one. Though never providing even a glimpse of his features--during the Elvis segment he wore a huge mask--Resident A developed, over the course of the show, an enormous, dominating authority. The technical term for a performance like that is a tour de fucking force.

The group could have done a couple more nights, but a rigid schedule prohibited it. They go next to Europe, but word is that they'll be back in Chicago in November for one date in a big hall. The members of the group apparently enjoyed their stay in town, mostly diverting themselves with an ongoing search for Billy Joel ("the Antichrist"), who was sharing the Hotel 21 East with the band that week. They did slip in and catch Sugar Blue at the Kingston Mines Friday; unnoticed, they sat in the back and watched, quietly and anonymously.

SXSW report: South by Southwest, March 14 to 18 in Austin, is, of course, the only entity in the world whose acronym is harder to pronounce than its actual name; the music conference has recently released some early lineups. Chicago bands with showcase slots include Material Issue, Bucket Number Six, the Ultraviolet, Big Shoulders, the Service, and the New Duncan Imperials. All are deserving, but the Imperials deserve note for getting in on a strong live reputation and a good tape and for overcoming any objections based on the fact that they're basically the Service in disguise. Austin during SXSW is the most fun place in the world; unlike some cities I could mention, the local government actively supports the local music scene: there's a half-mile section of Sixth Street downtown that must have half a dozen nightclubs per block, and during the conference, with more than 300 bands playing over four nights, the place is a madhouse. It's a great destination if you're in the mood for a road trip: a four-day club pass goes for 15 bucks, and you won't see better music anywhere. For information, call the conference at 512-448-6268. . . . Last week, I breathlessly reported on the upcoming Dave Edmunds and Friends concert March 24, and managed to make two mistakes in one sentence. Playing guitar will be Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds (not the Ventures--that's Don Wilson). And Dion is from the Bronx, not Philly. Sheesh.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Beans.

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