If you’ve never made the midwinter drive north towards Boston on I-90-on your way to an assignation you know you’ll bitterly regret-only one other experience comes close to conveying that feeling of dead, dry, inescapable New England cold, and that’s listening to Massachusetts by the Scud Mountain Boys.
Massachusetts is, hands down, the best rock album you probably don’t own-and if I haven’t put you off it forever, run, don’t walk, as the saying goes. The Scuds were a band of would-be punk rockers whiling away their post-collegiate years in Northampton, Mass., when they decided that the music they played informally around the kitchen table-traditional country softened by a Belle of Amherst melancholy-was better than the derivative punk they played onstage. They powered down, changed their name to the Scud Mountain Boys and promptly became the best of the indie/alt-country/No Depression acts influenced by the late, great Gram Parsons.
The genius behind the now-disbanded S.M.B. was Joe Pernice, who sings his perfect melodies in a gorgeous, feathers-off-a-lapwing voice that’s been compared to Colin Blunstone of the Zombies, or Steve Martin of the Left Banke. With his M.F.A. in poetry and the shifty look of adjunct faculty, Mr. Pernice is the thinking man’s Ryan Adams. His lyrics are one ravishing downer after another, about scratched Lotto tickets and faces smashed on steering columns.
After dithering through solo and offshoot projects, he formed the Pernice Brothers with brother Bob, and a Johnny Marr–style sidekick guitarist named Peyton Pinkerton. They recently released their third album, Yours, Mine & Ours , on their own label, Ashmont, after parting with Sub Pop on less-than-pleasant terms, and it’s more of the same: catchy, deliciously Weltschmerz -y and unjustly ignored.
The danger confronting every great unheralded musician who has made a near-masterpiece is that they’ll repeat themselves over and over again, hoping someone will finally notice. There’s a bit of that to Joe Pernice-he’ll be echoing Massachusetts until the day he dies-but he’s managed to draw upon that album’s strengths without endlessly plagiarizing himself. To that end, on the first two Pernice Brothers records he moved away from Gram Parsons in the direction of a sweet pop delirium styled after Brian Wilson. On Yours, Mine & Ours , he’s lost the orchestral flourishes and discovered his inner Paul Westerberg, a fact that bursts out at the listener from the album’s opening chords. On “The Weakest Shade of Blue” Mr. Pernice starts begging lovers past and present to rescue him from his considerable self-pity (“Won’t you come and unbury me,” he implores, “light me up like a lemon grove?”), and he doesn’t let up until he croons the album’s closing lines: “I hope some day we meet both broken. / It would feel so good to see you.”
Like true-blue revivalist Gillian Welch (child of a Los Angeles power couple), like country angel Laura Cantrell (erstwhile New York investment banker) and like the incomparable Lucinda Williams (daughter of Miller Williams, a poet-professor of medium renown), Mr. Pernice has discovered that the way to make music using the chord structures of Springsteen and the Eagles while retaining your indie credibility is to become a roots-inflected folkie, even if the roots aren’t exactly your own. All of these musicians are justly beloved, but Mr. Pernice has shifted away from the country idiom, incorporated more catholic influences, and he deserves a much wider audience, starting now.
Ironically, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music was organized shortly after the first Gulf War, to help bridge the gap between the Western (Judeo-Christian) and Muslim worlds, to attempt to promote some sort of understanding between the two seemingly disparate cultures by making explicit the strong relationships between Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
As much as that message seems to have been lost in the translation-and the tide of current events-the festival’s ninth outing took place from June 6 to 14 in the Moroccan city of Fez, where the residual fear produced by the May 16 terrorist bombings in Casablanca was drowned out by the joyous noise made by a diverse collection of world musicians that included a group of Native Americans and a local New Yorker.
On June 8, Ulali, a First Nations all-women a cappella group, performed underneath the unforgiving North African sun in the medina, the ancient walled city where Fez was first settled. They were one member short on this outing-singer Pura Fé was reportedly too unnerved by the Casablanca bombings to attend the festival. No matter, though, as the group’s two other members, Jennifer Kreisberg and Soni Moreno, provided an exciting afternoon of Native American music. The two women, dressed in exquisite robes, cut quite an image in the outdoor venue, and their swooping ululations, yelps and hollers energized the crowd that heretofore had succumbed to inertia in the heat. Representing the Tuscarora, Yaqui and Apache tribes, Ulali synthesizes traditional Native American music into a contemporary amalgam of vocal and musical ranges that’s densely layered and colored with an intense melancholia. While only at two-thirds capacity, Ulali’s sound was full and rich, accented with hand-held rattles that looked like coffee tins filled with dried beans but sounded like old pottery filled with bones, dust and other detritus of the northern Great Plains. See them when the full trio performs Aug. 12 at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival.
The most breathtaking performance of the festival was by a Tibetan exile who currently lives in Sunnyside, Queens. Yungchen Lhamo, whose name means “Goddess of Melodies” in Tibetan, also performs a cappella and, as she puts it, her songs are about “spiritual loving and compassion.” She was quite striking with her long black hair and Tibetan robe, and her ethereal voice, which is fluid, dynamic and hypnotic, rang hauntingly throughout the dramatic setting for her concert, the abandoned ancient Roman outpost of Volubilis, which is nestled in the foothills of the Middle Atlas mountain range an hour outside of Fez.
There were moments when Ms. Lhamo’s singing seemed to have an almost magic quality. Not only did she doggedly manage to get the obstinate crowd to sing along with her for one song, but on her last number, her voice filled the empty spaces of the ruins while vast gray clouds filled the sky until Ms. Lhamo was answered by a torrent of rain and hail. The stagehands quickly set up a protective tent for the singer, but she ignored it, running into the tempest to finish her set. The audience, for the most part, remained rapt during the downpour, sheltering amongst the remaining columns of the forum and the triumphal arch of the ruins-except for a contingent of middle-aged French tourists, who actually rushed onto the low-pitched stage and crowded into the tent set up for Ms. Lhamo.
Eerily, the storm subsided as soon as Ms. Lhamo’s last note faded, leaving the French tourists to applaud sheepishly from the tent they had hijacked.
Ms. Lhamo isn’t scheduled to perform in the city anytime soon, but she is currently working on a new album, due out at the end of this year or in early 2004. For those who can’t wait that long, they should check out her previous albums, Tibet, Tibet , Coming Home and Tibetan Prayer .
When thinking of traditional Islamic music, Senegalese drumming doesn’t immediately come to mind. That is, until Doudou N’Diaye Rose took the stage at the festival. Mr. Rose is a member of the Tijaniya Sufi brotherhood, a mystic sect within Islam.
Accompanied at first by seven male drummers, Mr. Rose led his group on a percussive tribute to Marabout Saint Amadou Bamba, a Senegalese Sufi saint. The drummers were dressed in light blue tunics, which belied the solemnity of the performance. Mr. Rose employs a drumming technique that eschews the traditional two-handed conga-type drumming in favor of one long stick paired with a bare hand. This method produces a wider array of sounds from the drums, and together, the drummers produced a richly layered cacophony that was so deep and resonant that it seemed to push the audience back into their seats with the kind of G-forces produced by a NASA centrifuge.
After the tribute section of the performance, Mr. Rose and his ensemble returned, dressed in colorful sub-Saharan outfits and reinforced by five women drummers. Not surprisingly, the drumming became even more outrageous as the drummers switched from solemn tribute to joyful celebration. Mr. Rose turned into orchestral leader, playing his drum occasionally but concentrating mainly on conducting his group through the intricate and complex rhythms of his compositions. This he accomplished through dancing, twirling, posing and jumping from end to end of the stage, whipping his group-and the audience-into a frenzy of rhythms and dance, punctuated by his yelps and hollers. The timing of the beats by his group was exceptional, and the energy exhibited was unmatched by any other performer during the festival.
Those who would like to witness Mr. Rose’s performance don’t need to travel to Morocco, merely to the exotic environs of upstate New York, where he’ll be performing on Oct. 25 at the State Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y.
For those who like to plan ahead, the next Fes Festival of World Sacred Music will be held from May 28 to June 5, 2004.