Uncle Woody Sullender, Relaxation Record, Sonderberg & Mills | Enemy | Experimental | Chicago Reader

Uncle Woody Sullender, Relaxation Record, Sonderberg & Mills All Ages Critic's Choice Recommended Soundboard

When: Sat., May 23, 8 p.m. 2009

Not too many musicians have redefined what the banjo is about the way Woody Sullender has. On his latest and best album, Live at Barkenhoff (Künstlerhäuser Worpswede/Dead CEO), the former Chicagoan evokes stringed instruments as disparate as John Fahey-style acoustic guitar and the Chinese lute called the pipa, all the while continuing to purge his playing of any traces of idiom—a tough task, given that few sounds bring to mind a specific genre as inevitably as banjo evokes bluegrass. He subtly augments his rangy extended improvisations with computer noises—usually either soothing drones or screechy violinlike sawing—but the focus always stays on his playing. Here and there Sullender uses unusual techniques—harmonics, string rubbing, percussive clattering—but most of the time he sticks with conventional plucking. Though he retains the instrument’s dry, brittle snap, he upends its familiar ambling flow, using tightly coiled, fast-flying tangles of notes and sprawling, meditative arpeggios. Some of the pieces use prewritten motifs and some are totally improvised, but each progresses with a clear logic, rising and falling, accelerating and decelerating, and thickening and dispersing as though telling a story. Not too many musicians have redefined what the banjo is about the way Woody Sullender has. On his latest and best album, Live at Barkenhoff (Künstlerhäuser Worpswede/Dead CEO), the former Chicagoan evokes stringed instruments as disparate as John Fahey-style acoustic guitar and the Chinese lute called the pipa, all the while continuing to purge his playing of any traces of idiom—a tough task, given that few sounds bring to mind a specific genre as inevitably as banjo evokes bluegrass. He subtly augments his rangy extended improvisations with computer noises—usually either soothing drones or screechy violinlike sawing—but the focus always stays on his playing. Here and there Sullender uses unusual techniques—harmonics, string rubbing, percussive clattering—but most of the time he sticks with conventional plucking. Though he retains the instrument’s dry, brittle snap, he upends its familiar ambling flow, using tightly coiled, fast-flying tangles of notes and sprawling, meditative arpeggios. Some of the pieces use prewritten motifs and some are totally improvised, but each progresses with a clear logic, rising and falling, accelerating and decelerating, and thickening and dispersing as though telling a story. Relaxation Record and Sonderberg & Mills open. —Peter Margasak

Price: $5 suggested donation

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