Not every course you take in college, assuming you're lucky enough to go, is guaranteed to stay with you once you've ventured out into the "real" world. But last Friday, after seeing local experimental ensemble Phrames of Mind's debut before a packed house at the Modbo gallery, I was reminded of two courses that fostered my appreciation for edgier musical explorations.
The first was an electronic music course that was taught by avant-garde composer Charles Dodge and included weekly sessions in the university's electronic music lab, where I'd spend hours exploring the mysteries of an old-school Moog synthesizer. A massive analog beast with enough patch cords and voltage control oscillators to make 2001's HAL 9000 jealous, it taught me that machines can be every bit as unpredictable as the people operating them.
The second course was "The Physics of Sound," where I learned about the phenomenon of sympathetic resonance. Examples are all around us: A passing truck rattling your windows, a president "setting the tone" for political discourse. In music, it can be one string causing another to vibrate, or a gathering of performers venturing beyond the limits of their individual imaginations.
And there was plenty of the latter going on Friday, with extended group improvisations that drew upon a diverse sonic palette, from Glen Whitehead's electronically enhanced trumpet work (think Nils Petter Molvaer meets Art Ensemble of Chicago) to guitarist Janet Feder scraping unidentified metal objects against nylon strings, à la Fred Frith.
Flautist Jane Rigler's stylistic approach was especially intriguing, with unusual vocalizations and delicate changes in intonation that seemed to draw upon Japanese shakuhachi technique. The lower end of the ever-shifting audio spectrum was adroitly occupied by upright bassist Jay Baker and bass clarinetist David Mead, all set against the immersive soundscapes of New York electronicist Doug Van Nort.
Of course, my college flashbacks might also have been due to the fact that most of Friday's improvisers are UCCS music faculty as well as members of the school's Peak FreQuency collective (who, by the way, are hosting a week-long residency by iconoclastic composer Pauline Oliveros in April). It's ironic, but not atypical, that internationally recognized, cutting-edge musicians go virtually unnoticed in their own communities, so hats off to the Modbo folks for introducing them to the rest of us. (You can hear the whole concert online at theflatresponse.com.)
It was also really gratifying to see such a big turnout for the following evening's Father John Misty show at the Black Sheep. After an engaging set of jangly twee-pop from Magic Trick — a new band fronted by the Fresh & Onlys' Tim Cohen — FJM frontman Josh Tillman proved he has the voice, the songs and the stage presence to establish himself as more than just "that guy from the Fleet Foxes." (Sorry, did it again.)
While Father John Misty's Fear Fun was among the most critically acclaimed albums of 2012, there was always the risk that Tillman wouldn't be able to pull it all off live. But songs like "Nancy for Now" — the most haunting ballad that Harry Nilsson never wrote — and the big-beat "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" were stunning. There were a few weak spots — "I'm Writing a Novel" felt like a retread of "The Ballad of John and Yoko," while an inexplicable cover of Canned Heat's "Going Up the Country" made for a disappointing closer — but all in all, a great show.
So what are the chances that another "household name" will visit our frozen wasteland in the coming weeks? Turns out James McMurtry has just scheduled a handful of Colorado dates, including the Mishawaka Amphitheatre near Fort Collins, the L2 Arts and Culture Center in Denver, and, on Feb. 17, the Loft here in Colorado Springs.
It was McMurtry who gave us one of the angriest odes to America's underclass since Phil Ochs' heyday. "We Can't Make It Here" won an Americana Music Association "Song of the Year" award, was named one of Rolling Stone's "25 Best Songs of the 2000s," and was re-recorded with Steve Earle and Joan Baez for the Occupy This Album benefit compilation.
"James McMurtry's songwriting is a bit ornery at times," says Jason Miller, who'll be opening the show (and also recording his own live album at the same venue on Jan. 18). "'Choctaw Bingo' and 'We Can't Make It Here' are like badass twisters. If you have warning and take shelter, you can safely observe. But, at the end, everything is messy."
So now that the word is out on "America's fiercest songwriter" playing one of Colorado's smallest stages, I'm guessing you have about five minutes before tickets sell out at loftmusicvenue.com. Good luck!