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Pauline Oliveros' electronic/acoustic composition "Primordial/Lift" had its world premiere at Hallwalls on Friday. Linda McRae, formerly of Spirit of the West, played a solo gig Friday in Mohawk Place. Leo Kottke brought mellow sounds to a Friday night gig at the Tralf. McCarthyizm played a local gig Saturday in the Tralf.
Pauline Oliveros
Working at the cutting edge of composition and performance, Pauline Oliveros has been an award-winning force on the avant garde scene for nearly four decades. She has taken the humble accordion into previously uncharted musical territory, breaking ground for performers like Guy Klusevsek and Geir Draugsvoll, folks whose electronically enhanced free reed instruments can conjure up a battery of sounds unlike anything Lawrence Welk ever dreamed of.

Oliveros came to Buffalo on Friday for the world premiere of her new composition "Primordial/Lift."

Joining her in this multimedia presentation were a quartet of musicians (cellists Anne Bourne and Alexandria Gelencser, violinist Tony Conrad and harmonium player David Grubbs) and media/sound artist Andrew Deutsch, whose battery of boxes and patch cords sorted audio tones into video images and back again.

The composer does have a sense of humor as evidenced by earlier works with titles like "Double Basses at Twenty Paces" and "Trio for Flute, Piano and Page Turner," but she is also involved in an ever-evolving format that she calls "Deep Listening."

Friday's hour-and-some-odd-minute-long performance of "Primordial/Lift" seemed to be an example of "Deep Listening" at work.

Lacking the focus of Indian classical music where drones act as a ground rather than a be all and end all, Oliveros' piece seemed to be intent on inducing a trance by the force of its bloodless intellectualism. This was music for the head, not the body, and the visceral pleasures of most musical idioms took a back seat to an ivory tower philosophy grounded in esoterica. Most of the audience seemed to eat it up, though.

-- Garaud MacTaggart
Mohawk Place:
Linda McRae
After years of performing in the Canadian group Spirit of the West, musician and singer Linda McRae has embarked on a solo career. She released her own songs this past autumn.

During a Friday night show in Mohawk Place, McRae said that starting out as a solo artist has been quite an adjustment.

She's traded in a tour bus to travel in a van and is currently performing before smaller audiences than she's accustomed to, but McRae deserves credit for stepping out on her own.

Her sound is considerably more country-flavored than that of Spirit of the West. And it's not for everyone. McRae has a low, slightly nasal-sounding voice, and she puts a lot of force behind it.

Melding her vocals with a band that uses silvery-sounding mandolin or a sharp fiddle line in many of their songs allows for the creation of a sound that is distinctive, though at times a little jarring. Her voice and the high strings weren't always a comfortable match.

McRae's songs are personal things, written about people who have affected her life or events that she couldn't quite get out of her head. A song that McRae said she wrote for her daughter, called "Time," worked well. It had an honest to goodness country wail to it.

Less convincing, however, was the title track from McRae's debut release, "Flying Jenny," which she explained is an old-fashioned type of merry-go-round. McRae clearly put her feelings behind the song, but the words and melody weren't particularly compelling.

The band backing McRae consisted of Jesse Zubott, a fiddle/mandolin player; Steve Dawson, a slide guitarist; Darren Parris, a bass player, and drummer Geoff Hicks. At some points during the show, they seemed like a group of separate musicians playing at the same time. The playing wasn't disjointed, it was just that most of the musicians in the band had their separate talents, and they didn't always gel. In time, they may settle into more of a group chemistry.

Starting out the night's performance was Go Dog Go with Michael Oliver. Oliver told the audience that he met McRae when his band opened up a local show for Spirit of the West, a thrill for him, he said, because he was already a fan of their music.

But on Friday, it was Go Dog Go that was winning over some new fans in the small audience. They gave a no-frills presentation of songs with heartfelt lyrics. "Hey, Grace" was a fine number, but just one of many for the band. They also delivered lively up-tempo songs. Go Dog Go has a pleasing sound, rich and mellow.

-- Betsy Taylor
Tralfamadore Cafe:
Leo Kottke
It is a rare performer who settles for not what the audience accepts as good but for what he accepts as good.

Pianist Bruce Hornsby and guitarists Steve Vai and Leo Kottke are three such rarities. To us, they have long surpassed the pack, but to themselves, the final lap remains miles away.

Friday in the Tralfamadore Cafe, Kottke "oohed" and "aahed" his fans with his two-handed ability -- as his left fingered the melody, his right plucked the rhythm. To us, he was amazing. To himself, he was simply all right.

"I've learned not to knock it -- what I can do," the Guitar Player magazine Hall-of-Famer said between sets. "But I know damn well what I can't do."

Take, for instance, "Peckerwood." Revealing his need to constantly improve, Kottke told the full crowd he has been "working on the tune for years," and that it is now close to where he wants it. Using twisted fingerings and varied rhythms, the song verified Kottke's claim that a 12-string with a special tuning can double the range of a six-string. Perfection at its peak?

"I screwed that song up tonight," he later said. "It was flat; it wouldn't quite float the way I know it can."

Regardless, trading between his Taylor Signature Model 12 and six-string, Kottke took his guitar lines to the mastery level as he performed solo duets. Whether touching lightly upon his chamber music experience or plucking brightly through his bluegrass preference, the Georgia native was a sight to behold. What fingering was that? How did he find that sound? Even he was unsure of exactly how some of his peerless phrasings are produced.

"Some of those things, I just sort of lean into them, it's more a feel thing," he later said.

Complementing his fingerings was his dry, low-toned voice. Lyrics, which never overrode his guitar lines, chugged as slow as Johnny Cash's while between-song anecdotes drove in the roars as instantly as deadpan comedian Steven Wright's.

-- Michele Ramstetter
Tralfamadore Cafe:
Any comedian will tell you that the secret to success is timing. McCarthyizm is an example of what Dr. John expressed in "The Right Time but the Wrong Place."

Thirty years ago, their punchy pop tunes, laden with more hooks than a tackle box, would have practically guaranteed them national, if not international, success.

Saturday night in the Tralfamadore Cafe, their 18-and-older concert was marred by Old Man Winter's 18 degree-and-lower temperatures that prevented opening act "Mightyhead" from getting out of Binghamton and cut down on their usual high fan turnout.

Maybe it was Kevin McCarthy's Rickenbacker guitar that reminded me of the Byrds' mid-1960s harmonic and melodic treasures. Or, it could just have been brother Joe's catchy roll-with-the-punches hook on "Punch Drunk," which featured a rollicking chorus and memorable harmonies.

"Take What You Can Get," from their 1995 "Vesuvio" CD, was a perfect example of Beatles charm juxtaposed with Sex Pistols drive. It summed up McCarthyizm's gift for ironic lyrics wrapped, like a wafer, around a sweet pop sound.

I loved "First Place." The first time I ever heard it was three years ago, leading off "Vesuvio," and it has only gotten better with time. Theirs are the lean cuisine of lyrics -- the archetypical three-minute hit single. Like the Beatles and Credence Clearwater Revival, they are masters of the form.

"Until That Time," with its mile-a-minute rhythm and lyric put me in mind of the playful eighties pop bagatelle, "Life Is a Rock but the Radio Rolled Me."

It is easy to miss the chafing-at-the-bit insurgency of McCarthyizm's lyrics that come across as sweet confection upon first listening but later reveal their political and social associations. Listen carefully to "What's Going On," "Until That Time" and "Take What You Can Get."

Led by the McCarthy brothers, Kevin and Joe, their onstage image is so clean-cut they make Donny and Marie almost seem decadent by comparison. Not a winning point in this decade of cynicism and ennui, in which bands revel in self-destructive behavior.

Credit for the band's rock-solid music must be shared with guitarist Dan Janak and the precise rhythm section work of drummer Tom Brown and bassist Michael Swain, who on Saturday night, played his swan song with McCarthyizm.

As Shakespeare expressed in "Hamlet":

"Brevity is the soul of wit."

To that brevity, McCarthyizm adds melodic, harmonic and rhythmic wit.

-- Jim Santella

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