On May 25th, the world’s best record store for experimental music held their 21rst Anniversary Show at one of the best venues for experimental music: Le Poisson Rouge in New York City. The featured acts were Kalabalik, with Raoul Bjorkenheim, Anders Nilsson and Gerald Cleaver; and the debut duo appearance of Nels Cline and Julian Lage. The event also served as a CD release party for Kalabalik’s debut p on DMG/ARC Records.
After an amusing introduction by Downtown Music Gallery owner Bruce Lee Gallanter, Kalabalik took the stage. The lineup of twin electric guitarists and drums largely mined the area where rock meets free improvisation, a world Bjorkenheim helped invent with his Finnish band Krakatau in the early Nineties. Sweden’s Anders Nilsson continues the tradition on his new record Night Guitar. The music ranged from quiet bowed passages (Bjorkenheim) to walls of gloriously distorted noise. Though the guitarists occasionally seemed to drift from each other, a series of dramatic, intuitive endings revealed deep listening.
If asked which two guitarists were least likely to ever play together, Nels Cline and Julian Lage would no doubt hover on top of your list. Wilco guitarist and hard-core experimentalist Cline’s penchant for noise and effects seems at the opposite end of the spectrum from Lage’s near acoustic traditionalism, until you remember that Cline played largely acoustic guitar for most of the early part of his career. Modern guitar godfather Jim Hall midwifed the pairing by introducing Cline to Lage.
For this show Cline pulled out a Gibson Barney Kessel archtop and what looked like a semi-hollow Framus electric 12-string, shunning all effects save for a reverb adding a little ambience to his ZT Club amp. Lage largely pied his Manzer archtop, though he did plug a vintage looking Telecaster into his Carr amp for one tune.
They performed compositions Cline is writing specifically for the project, some more fleshed out than others. Pat Metheny has said that he finds most guitar duos boring, but this one was a notable exception. Cline’s writing gave both guitarists ample room to show off their technical prowess while providing a framework that kept the goal of making music in clear sight. The palpable delight each showed in the other’s playing was instrumental (no pun intended) in keeping the set from turning into a cutting match. Cline seemed occasionally stunned by Lage’s prodigious cross-picking ability and general fluidity on the fretboard, while Lage in turn smiled in delight at Cline’s inventive extended techniques.
Normally a low volume performance like this duo’s would precede the aggressive electricity of a band like Kalabalik. But the spectacular show of creativity and energy emanating from Cline and Lage was the perfect topper for an evening of great modern guitar.