Howard Fishman Quartet: Fine Old Cannibals

Two and a half years ago, Howard Fishman and his band were playing their honey-dripping jazz-folk-Dixieland-swing music in the Bedford Street L station. With a guitar (sometimes a banjo), a fiddle, a bass and a trumpet, they unhurriedly, opulently unrolled the kind of sweet old tunes that haunted the ballroom in The Shining, all for a quarter–or, hell, for free! Watching these young guys dressed like pushcart peddlers play, you felt yourself falling into a time warp, and somehow heard the scritchings of a classic 78 ghosting alongside them.

Then, a few months later, somebody discovered the Williamsburg quartet and they moved their act to the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel. The Public Theater’s Bonnie Metzgar had also been eyeing them, thinking of lining them up for a gig at Joe’s Pub. She caught one of their weekly shows at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn (where they play every Thursday at 9 p.m.), was amazed, then brought George Wolfe, who concurred. “You’re not used to hearing this level of improvisation and experimentation with this kind of music,” Ms. Metzgar said. “You feel that you’re present for something being born.”

Russell Farhang, the group’s mesmerizing violinist (who scrapped a career in banking when the band took off, and who is weary of being compared with Stéphane Grappelli in the press), explains, “We perform so often that we don’t rehearse; we treat the performances as exploratory sessions. At shows, each set is like its own play.” Sensing the quartet’s dramatic potential, last winter Mr. Wolfe and Ms. Metzgar asked Mr. Fishman if he had any interest in working up a piece for the Public’s “New Work Now” series.

“I said I would like to do a treatment of the Donner party, and they said great!” Mr. Fishman recalled. The Donner party, of course, is that doomed band of idealistic Midwesterners who set out for California in 1846, got stranded in the Sierra Nevada and ended up turning each other into beef jerky over the long winter. “I don’t think it’s really going to go overtly to people eating each other,” said Ms. Metzgar. “But you never know with Howard.”

“The only thing people know about the Donner party is the punch line–they ate each other. That, to me, is the least interesting part of the story,” said Mr. Fishman. “It’s a very classic tragedy in that it begins in a sunny, beaming, hopeful place and descends to this dark, horrible inferno! That’s another reason why the story attracted me musically,” he added. “We do play sweet, nice music sometimes, but we also play dark, experimental avant-garde music that is like performance art.” This spring, the quartet performed the first run-through of the Donner musical in progress–with a script by Mr. Fishman, enacted, spoken and performed by the band, who interpret and augment the story line with their instruments–to an exuberant audience at the Public. Dinner was not served.

In June and July, the Howard Fishman Quartet will play an exclusive engagement at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette Street) on Sundays at 8:30 p.m.; part of each evening will be devoted to the Donner piece, which Mr. Fishman has named We Are Destroyed –words taken from the journal of one member of the party. The last Sunday in July, they will perform the piece in its entirety.

– Liesl Schillinger

Basement Jaxx: House Cleaners

Since the 80’s, house music has subsisted on a steady diet of 4/4 bass, crisply syncopated hi-hats and distillations of melody and soul. But to reduce house to its elements is to miss the point entirely. Basement Jaxx understand this well. So with their 1999 debut, Remedy , the British duo reinvigorated the etherized dance scene by straying from house’s formula and capturing its more ephemeral essence. Remedy ‘s worldly mix of Spanish guitars, Latin horns and elastic funk summoned house music’s sultry spirit, while adding a much-needed sexiness to the big-beat bombast of artists like Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers.

Rooty (Astralwerks) both expands and condenses the ideas from Remedy to set Basement Jaxx even further ahead of their peers. “Romeo,” the first single, is a post-breakup kiss-off song that punches through the female singer’s see-you-later lyrics with jagged defiance. It’s tough and lurching, until it levels off in a roller-rink-ready interlude that is pure candy-coated emotion. Like most of the album’s high points, “Romeo” is a dance track that drips with as much melody and storytelling as the best pop songs, while “Breakaway” struts toward slinky, Prince-like funk with thigh-slapping beats, wicky-wicky vocals and clipped shards of horn-filled house grandeur.

Rooty bursts with the hyperactive imagination of two guys who can barely contain their talent. On “Broken Dreams,” they flirt with downtempo mariachi, complete with sashaying guitar and a Tijuana trumpet line. “Where’s Your Head At” pairs slamming jack-track beats with a scream-along chorus. The only throwaway, “SFM (Sexy Feline Machine),” leads into “Jus 1 Kiss,” the kind of soaring house anthem that makes life worth living for another four minutes.

–Andy Battaglia

Ministry: All the Rage

When Ministry released With Sympathy in 1983, they were the darlings of the dance-club circuit, particularly for “Work for Love,” a poppy little song sparkling with pizzicato synth stabs and the romping, elastic bass sequences popular at the time. Precious archival photos of front man Al Jourgensen in a flouncy white smock–face powdered, hair teased, expression wistful–suggest that he shared a stylist with the Thompson Twins. These days, the malevolent Mr. Jourgensen, now in black leather and vaguely satanic tattoos, dismisses the album as “an abortion.” (Harsh, but in keeping with the conceits of the contemporary Ministry vocabulary.) With Sympathy is his Chappaquiddick.

Even so, the album is valuable for the perspective it lends to the crescendo of bombast that characterized the following two decades of Ministry’s existence. Since 1990’s Twitch , Ministry songs have come in two flavors (howl of despair or roar of alienation), each album a sustained thrash punctuated by the occasional dirge, the lyrics shot through with the paranoid grandiosity of adolescence. The music drives the point home relentlessly: anger, misery, disenchantment. Every song. Mr. Jourgensen is the Groundskeeper Willie of alternative rock, raging furiously (and often unintelligibly) somewhere in the bushes, misanthropic passion undimmed by the passing of years. Groundskeeper Willie on smack. Or Yosemite Sam on Quaaludes. You get the picture.

Greatest Fits (Warner Bros.) covers Ministry’s past 13 years, the industrial-grindcore-electronic-speedmetal Warner Bros. years. Listening to its 13 songs proves that the group reached musical maturity with 1988’s The Land of Rape and Honey . Sure, they picked up the tempos a bit for 1992’s Psalm 69 and slowed them back down and added mandolins and harmonicas on 1995’s Filth Pig , but the sound remains the same: battering synthetic beats, layers of heavy-metal guitar, the interstices spackled shut with feedback and looped, “provocative” found sounds (William Burroughs for “One More Fix,” a Nazi rally for “Stigmata”). Mr. Jourgensen yells and bellows, his words electronically mangled into merciful near-indecipherability.

This is not to say that the album is without its charms–for who doesn’t love a good thrash once in a while? Mr. Jourgensen is best when diluted: The cover of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” is a bit of an eye-roller, but Black Sabbath’s “Supernaut” started life as an eye-roller, and works well here as a buzzing version by 1000 Homo D.J.’s (a Ministry alter-identity). Best of all is “Jesus Built My Hotrod,” a collaboration with Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes that’s like mainlining nitro and methedrine: pure, skidding electronic-rockabilly speedway trash.

For all of their influence on black-clad American rock industrialists from Trent Reznor to Rob Zombie, Ministry isn’t particularly innovative. Their sound is a high-tech jumble of mid-80’s industrial, from early Killing Joke to Einstürzende Neubauten to Coil, brightened with slashes of straight-ahead heavy metal. When compared with the bands that inspired them, it becomes clear that Ministry is about aesthetics, not ideology, which makes their passion automatically suspect. Worse, it makes Al Jourgensen’s howling seem just a wee bit excessive.

– Jonathan Hayes

Summer Concert Preview: Dino-Mite!

Let’s review some choice epithets used to disparage over-40 pop musicians. There’s “has-beens.” There’s “guilty pleasures.” And here’s the champ: “dinosaurs.” There’s a resentment at work here, one typically propagated by rock-critically correct music writers at great pains to express their solidarity with whatever alleged new musical movement is championed from year to year.

So this is the legacy of punk rock: a kind of Stalinist impulse that rails against the big, bad corporate-rock leviathan, even 15 years after said fight ceased to be meaningful. Turn on any Behind the Music and you’ll see some balding, self-loathing rock hack whining about how Manilow-metallists Styx (Jones Beach, July 1) or nerf-metallists Poison (Jones Beach, July 6; PNC Bank Arts Center, July 8) kept “revolutionary” rock ‘n’ roll at bay. Put a sock in it, clown: Henry Rollins does voice-overs for Ford, and he cashed that paycheck before he wrote a song as good as “Best of Times.”

Summertime is when the dinosaurs walk the earth. They fill the sheds, like Jones Beach and New Jersey’s PNC Bank Arts Center. In the last three years, when young folks failed to render the likes of Lollapalooza and the Lilith Fair profitable,

dino-tours were left standing as the only sure thing for promoters. Of course, this is because Johnny Alt-rocker and Joanie Raver’s aunts and uncles have more disposable income to spend reliving their high-school years. Johnny and Joanie will be in their elders’ shoes soon enough. It is ever thus.

The important thing is that, if you ever found anything wonderful about “Don’t Stop Believin’,” you’ll have an honestly good time if you go see Journey with Peter Frampton (PNC Bank Arts Center, June 29; Jones Beach, July 8). Set aside the following: cheap irony, your gut reaction to fat men in shorts, that vintage T you bought at Filthmart with that selfsame irony, and the fact that the band has replaced Steve Perry with a ringer. Then try not to be swept away, since everyone else will be. I bet you’ll fail.

It just doesn’t matter that Stevie Nicks (Jones Beach, July 20; PNC Bank Arts Center, July 21) or Rod Stewart (PNC Bank Arts Center, July 10-11; Jones Beach, August 7) are more innovative when it comes to making holes in their septums and cultivating crow’s feet than they are at making music. Bonhomie, open air and songs you can sing along to are nothing to be ashamed of. Joyless music of the moment, like complaint-rap-metal and monkish “intelligent dance music,” is.

Styx/Bad Company, Jones Beach, July 1

Depeche Mode, Jones Beach, July 3

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers/Jackson Browne, PNC Bank Arts Center, July 1; Jones Beach, July 5

James Taylor, PNC Bank Arts Center, July 6-7; Jones Beach, July 13

Millie Jackson, B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, July 7

Grand Slam Metal Jam Featuring Poison, Warrant, Quiet Riot and Enough Z’nuff, PNC Bank Arts Center, July 8

Echo & the Bunnymen, Irving Plaza, July 10

The Cult, Roseland, July 11

Chicago, Jones Beach; July 12; PNC Bank Arts Center, July 14

Paul Simon/Brian Wilson, PNC Bank Arts Center, July 20; Jones Beach, July 24

Roxy Music, the Theater at Madison Square Garden, July 23-24

Bon Jovi/Sugar Ray/Eve 6, Giants Stadium, July 28

Ringo Starr & His New All-Starr Band, Jones Beach, Aug. 1; PNC Bank Arts Center, August 9

Huey Lewis & the News Jones Beach, Aug. 4

Elvis: The Concert, Radio City Music Hall, Aug. 10

Ozzfest 2001 Featuring Black Sabbath and Marilyn Manson, PNC Bank Arts Center, Aug. 11-12; Jones Beach, Aug. 15-16

Allman Brothers Band, Jones Beach, Aug. 21-22; PNC Bank Arts Center, Aug. 22

Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jones Beach, Aug. 23; PNC Bank Arts Center, Aug. 27

Yes, PNC Bank Arts Center, Sept. 6; Jones Beach, Sept. 7, Radio City Music Hall, Sept. 8

–Rob Kemp Howard Fishman Quartet: Fine Old Cannibals