Mountain Oasis Electronic Summit: Recap Part 1

My sweetheart and I enjoyed the first night of 2013 Mountain Oasis together; while I’d cover nights two and three on my own, this night we managed together to take in all or part of sets by five acts; here’s a rundown of the three most notable.

Half Japanese
We arrived at the Thomas Wolfe Amphitheater ahead of Half Japanese’s show start, and settled into seats a few rows back. But while sitting there waiting – and as the venue began, slowly, to fill – we decided that we’d move up to the balcony. The thinking was that since I’d be in the photo pit for the first three songs, I’d see the band up close for a bit, and then after that we’d prefer seats from which we could view the set more comfortably.

As it happened, the term “photo pit” would be a misnomer insofar as the Thomas Wolfe venue was concerned. Yes, there was a gated-off section up front, between the front rows of seats and the (covered) orchestra pit. But no, we shooters wouldn’t be allowed in it. I never did learn why.

But that was okay; from my vantage point I was still able to snap off some decent pics. The band’s focal point, as always, remains singer/guitarist Jad Fair. Wearing a candy-colored guitar (one that employs his, er, signature tuning), Fair led the band through bursts of songs that were unfailingly short, catchy and silly, all in turn. Half Japanese songs are a mixture of childlike wonder applied (at least sometimes) to adult subject matter.

Or, at least, teenage subject matter. Witness “Sex at Your Parents’ House” (originally on 1987’s Music to Strip By), a delightfully simple and representative ditty from the band’s set. Featuring few lyrics, and featuring them repeatedly, the song nonetheless gets its point across, and expresses a worldview that most of us have espoused, even if only for a brief time many years ago. Half Japanese’s sonic approach is solid: put Fair out front and let him sing his songs and call the tunes, and back him up with a tight, muscular band. One can’t help but think that this is what The Modern Lovers were supposed to sound like, but rarely did.

To cover a moment while a few offstage technical issues were addressed, Fair lit into an atonal “guitar solo” that was little more than random bashings upon his guitar. But y’know what? It was kinda fun. And who knew that Fair’s band – with its off-kilter musical approach centered around a front man with a musical skill set somewhere inside the triangle of nonexistent, savant-like and studiously unstudious – would turn out to be the most conventionally “normal” (and enjoyable) music we’d take in this evening.

Silver Apples
The next set would be wildly different. First of all, the venue was the relatively tiny Asheville Music Hall, a (save for a half dozen bar stools) standing-room-only club about four blocks from the Thomas Wolfe. In its previous incarnation, the space was StellaBlue, a dumpy, dingy dive with dodgy stage equipment, and vocal mics notorious for possessing a pungent odor best not described here. But StellaBlue often booked great music, and the much classier Asheville Music Hall seems to be doing the same.

The stage setup was, in one sense, quite simple. From the floor, Simeon Coxe‘s setup looked like nothing so much as a table with some stuff on it, and a mic stand. Ahead of his set, a few credentialed photographers actually jumped up on the stage to snap photos of Coxe’s rig from the business side. Eventually I did, too, but it was too dark to get anything of value.

Once Coxe took the stage, things lit up both visually and aurally. Simeon Coxe is – there’s no other way to say it – an older gentleman (he’s 75); and with his longish, thinning white hair and spectacles, he looks a bit like a professor. Or a mad scientist. And of course it’s the latter guise that best suits a man who creates music onstage on the fly, using no keyboards. A variety of oscillators and looping devices were the tools at Coxe’s disposal; he used them expertly to build sonic landscapes. There’s nothing especially melodic about what Coxe creates –it’s more about vibe and texture — but neither is it slavishly reliant on overbearing “beats” to the degree that so much modern synth music seems to be.

In fact the drum parts that audiences hear are sampled bits from Coxe’s late partner in Silver Apples, Danny Taylor (he passed away in 2005). While the duo’s groundbreaking self-titled debut album was released in 1968, they went on to release a number of albums well into the 21st century (with a brief respite of some 29 years in the middle). Coxe and his Taylor-in-a-can proved that the older crowd can still teach modern-day knob twiddlers a thing or six. Coxe’s library of modern psych projections suited his sounds quite well, too.

This duo of brothers Ron and Russell Mael seem to be the exception to fraternal discord in pop music; unlike the brothers Gallagher or Davies (to name but two), this pair seem to collaborate without disharmony. While they’ve enlisted the on- and offstage help of auxiliary musicians throughout their multi-decade career, at Mountain Oasis, it was just Russell on vocals (no instruments) and Ron on keyboards (no vocals). The duo cut an odd-duck profile onstage; minimal lighting – no fog or such things – and no additional visuals meant that audiences at the tony Diana Wortham Theater had two things to look at. Ron sat stonily at his 88-key machine (and rarely changed his settings from a sort of grand piano-plus-strings soundbank) while Russell emoted – often in soprano or falsetto – and strode in wide circles around the stage.

Their music can best be described as a sort of highly theatrical, stagey keys-and-vocal delivery, with more than a strong whiff of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in both compositional style and arrangement (they’re big in Germany). They did manage to contain themselves in the face of persistent difficulty with their in-ear monitors; several times during their set, both men left the stage briefly, presumably to insist upon correction of the problems. From all available evidence, in the end they simply made do with the substandard monitor mix. But as one audience member called out to them in response to Russell’s explanation, the house mix sounded fine.

The evening’s most memorable number – like it or not – was “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?” a repetitive tune (“Practice! Practice!”) that originally appeared on Sparks’ 2002 album Li’l Beethoven. Some listeners find them zany; I’m not sure that word quite gets at their essence. Doubtless an acquired taste, Sparks remained a must-see if only because they’ve never once before performed in North Carolina in the years since they began some 43 years ago.

More Mountain Oasis coverage to come, including lots of photos.

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