Loose Fur at St. Ann’s Warehouse, NY
Dec. 6, 2002
I hoped the Loose Fur show wouldn’t be an evening of high seriousness. Somehow the presence of experimentalist Jim O’Rourke and even the lettering on the poster of the concert – Tweedy/O’Rourke/Kotche, it announced portentously – foretold solemnity. I’d been to hear O’Rourke a few months ago, playing with the improvisational band White Noise, and it was smart and imaginative music, but as clever as it was, I realized while listening to it that I wouldn’t have minded if was suddenly cancelled by a power failure.
That wasn’t the case with the Loose Fur show – it turned out to be a lot of rock and roll fun, though that wouldn’t be apparent until the first note of music. The musicians had shambled onstage earlier to sound-test their instruments or something – this seems to be the new indie rock vogue, to come onstage and fiddle with your equipment, then disappear again for another 15 minutes – and it all looked very mysterious, O’Rourke in his woolen hat with long hair protruding so his face was almost hidden (is this the Chan Marshall effect? I wondered – is O’Rourke going to be so painfully introspective that we’ll spend the evening mentally cheering on his ability to remain in the public eye?) and Tweedy looking about as usual but Who Knew? Was he so submerged in his new fondness for experimentation that we’d get none of the regular Jeff Tweedy? Would anyone, like, sing a song? (As is obvious by now, I hadn’t heard the Loose Fur cd, which will be released on Drag City in 2003.)
Well, it was a happy night for low-culture fans. The first song started with no introduction – Tweedy’s distinctive gravelly voice rang out into the cavernous space of St. Ann’s Warehouse: “Wish I could fuck you like he thinks he does,” and the crowd laughed, and the band launched into a cool, fucked up Tweedy song – fucked up in a good way, with churning, reverb-y guitars and some chug-chug effect that sounded like a motorboat, bearing O’Rourke’s quirky imprimatur. Both Tweedy and O’Rourke were on guitar for this song (“Millionaire”), swapping ideas and trading off solos with a rough intuitiveness very different from their more contrived collaboration on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. There was a real looseness to the music (“loose fur, that’s a problem ferrets have,” Tweedy cracked at one point) – not loose as in sloppy but as in freewheeling spontaneity. This wasn’t high seriousness – it was an exhilarating collaboration between musicians who had a hundred ideas for every phrase, but were also listening hard, merging their sounds with passion and precision.
For the second song, Tweedy stayed on vocals and O’Rourke switched to a laptop effects box, which could make screeching or twittery sounds, imitating a sax at one point and a penny whistle at others. I lost track of who was doing what, but it was fascinating – melodic and atonal at once. “It is rocking,” reads a note I scrawled during this number.
Tweedy’s straightforward, folky side is goosed and textured into a wild and sometimes ecstatic complexity by the zanier ideas brought in by O’Rourke, while Tweedy’s influence seems to bring out the more down-to-earth side of O’Rourke. The next song had a sparse, atonal beginning and then O’Rourke sang, in a surprisingly strong, expressive voice, something like: “Don’t look at me, you won’t find me there / It’s so wrong to go on with yourself,” a smart and moving lyric. I was amazed again by the new ways indie rockers have found to talk about contemporary malaise. Anyway, this song by O’Rourke, “So Long,” is meditative, melancholy and funny, which is true of all O’Rourke’s songs. He has a dry humor that emerges in all his lyrics and is the quintessence of deadpan, white-boy disengagement: “Why should I ask you how everything in your day went / Wouldn’t that mean I cared?” O’Rourke sang (I’m paraphrasing) at one point. But at other points an exuberant pop soul comes out of him – his songs built to catchy choruses, which Tweedy roughed up the same way O’Rourke did on his songs. They began to seem like mirrors of each other, with similar styles of hunching over their guitars, and the humbling combination of brilliance and low-key modesty.
With two such self-effacing front men, the presence of Glenn Kotche added a lot besides his passionate drumming. When he gets into a song, Kotche looks like he can hardly contain himself, tipping his head back in ecstasy or tilting it to listen while he thrums a building beat. There’s something thrilling about watching anyone so lost in their playing, but Kotche has a special dishevelled hot-eyed look, as if the song has taken possession of him and he has no idea where he’s going but he’s committed to every beat until the end. (There was also an expressive bass player who was identified only as “Darin.” [Later discovered to be Darin Gray – ed.])
There was an instrumental song, “Chelsea Walls,” that built to a long jam with a churning, screeching, swooping intertwining of guitar sounds that really rocked. A man sitting beside me asked me how I thought it was different from any cool rock jam, and I said, “Maybe because they’re such good musicians,” with my usual devastating critical insight, and he shared, “I think they got to the same place as many jams go, but they got there in different ways,” which I thought was probably pretty smart, musically, but I didn’t want to have a conversation about it because Jeff Tweedy and Jim O’Rourke were joking with the crowd and I desperately wanted to hear what they were saying. So I’m sorry, guy from CitySearch, that I blew you off to be a Rock Journalist. It turned out Tweedy was annoyed with someone in the crowd for yelling out “Why the Yo La Tengo?” – a reference to the long jam? (The same person had yelled stuff before.) “Who’s this political person in the audience?” Tweedy complained. “Did I say there’d be a Q & A on the program?” It was all pretty good natured, as was O’Rourke’s running joke about songs not being about anyone in particular, which he worked throughout the evening in a friendly, Midwestern way.
My notes from the show get more and more illegible – one reads “kinda like porpoises,” another reference to Tweedy and O’Rourke’s playfully squealing guitars. I was getting too into the music to write much anyway. “This is our first show as Loose Fur,” Jeff Tweedy announced at the beginning of the evening. When the applause died down, he added, “And it’s one of two. So you’re seeing us halfway through our career.” A funny joke, but it’s a shame. But maybe it was the super-group, one-off intensity that made the show so special. I don’t know. I’m just glad I was there.
Laminated Cat (a.k.a. Not for the Season)
You Were Wrong
Street Success (encore)