Brian Cutean on disk, on air, onstage: Evergreen artistry

On his career-capping new album and in concert in Portland, the veteran Eugene singer combines social conscience with sharply observed songwriting


Since running away as a Midwestern youth to ride the rails and join the traveling minstrels, Eugene-based Brian Cutean has been mentored by some giants of various genres of modern Americana and world music and theater while he has himself cast distinctive influence across styles of song, recording, improv/story theater, spoken-word performance, deeply enmeshed in activist and arborist communities of cultivators and folk artists.

Brian Cutean and band performed at Portland's Old Church concert hall. Photo: Daniel Flessas.

Brian Cutean and band performed at Portland’s Old Church concert hall. Photo: Daniel Flessas.

A warm late August show in Portland at the acoustically overhauled historic Old Church gave the city folk and Ore-Wa regional song-chasers a chance to celebrate Cutean’s newly released album, slow-cooked with some of the spicy musicians who lent it its flavor on-hand as summer touring commitments wind down.

Radio Daze

Before that performance, Daniel Flessas, the pioneering free-form community radio collagist and curator of KBOO’s The Outside Worldhosted Cutean the afternoon of the show while subbing for the regular host of Friday afternoon’s The Song Circle. Flessas has collaborated with Cutean in some wild, woolly and inspired bits of improvisational “outsider” late-night free-form lunacy and in-studio drop-in jam sessions.

Flessas introduced this new release, The Sound of Photosynthesis, as a culmination of Cutean’s honing of his songwriting, arranging and recording skills over a fruitful and hard-traveled career. Flessas recalled witnessing many of these adventurously and exquisitely recorded pieces played either solo at Oregon Country Fair and a wide range of stages where Cutean might be backed by sparse accompaniment and would resourcefully suggest more of the sounds Cutean was hearing in these compositions, including site and time specific bird-song or seasonal riverside foliage sound collages welcoming road and session-seasoned collaborators from the studios in Austin, Eugene and Po’Town. The new recording has brought it all together into a long-awaited fully realized statement.

Flessas had recently buried his father after many months of caring for his stricken parent, while Brian Cutean’s older brother and guitar picking partner Bruce Cutean had died back in the rural Midwest, unexpectedly around the time of the album’s completion last fall. Characteristic of the existential deadpan approach to death and the gravitas of grieving loved ones who also happened to be formative creative influences in their own right, Flessas set up his hour-long broadcast with Cutean with iconic post-mortem songs on Father/Son relationships by Loudon Wainwright III and Chicagoan Michael Smith’s unstuck-in-time atmospheric ballad “I Brought My Father With Me.”

Before Flessas even introduced Cutean, he’d reached via YouTube’s archives for an early Second City comedy bit banned from rebroadcast on network television’s Jack Paar show after being performed by the trailblazing improv duo Mike Nichols and Elaine May. A legendary riff on muckraker Jessica Mitford’s early 1960s scandal-creating éxpósé on the high cost of dying, her influential book The American Way of Death that the Second City comedy duo crafted into their act as the ‘Bargain Funeral’ bit.

Mad in the Heavens

Cutean opened that evening’s show at Portland’s Old Church concert hall with his own opening track from The Sound of Photosynthesis called “glimpse (a Lorca).” The impressionistic piece is more a visionary invocation rather than an exposition on the assassination of Spain’s poet-humanist Federico Garcia Lorca in August 1936 ending a brief interlude known as Spain’s Second Republic between dictatorships. Cutean varied the colors of Kate O’Brien-Clarke’s violin-led string arrangement with subtle reverberant cymbals as recorded for the album. His backing band on this night substituted 3 Leg Torso accordion adept Courtney Von Drehle shading in sepia-tint Cutean’s sense-datum drawn from images of Lorca’s whirlwind life in Spain, in dance and through time in the poet’s verse.

For a taste of an earlier yet string arrangement as played in a trio setting featuring Celtic fiddler Billy Oskay sitting in with Brian Cutean and double-bassist Jason Montgromery at the Alberta Rose Theater in a pre-recording live performance, there is this unstuck-in-time take:

It was followed one up-tempo and rocking “Next Big Thing” later by a new and as yet un-recorded Brian Cutean song of sharply contrasted shades of intimate grief named “One Who Goes.” Performers are rarely courageous to the point of challenging their audiences with new material early in a set and trusting that audience enough to switch musical and mood modalities with such sharply contrasted emotional material. The widely ranging if not hipster-free audience at The Old Church responded with immediate enthusiasm to the haunting opener on Garcia Lorca’s evanescence in Spain, greeting the rocking follow-up and then understandably taking a few silent beats at the delicate fade of “One Who Goes” to digest the quick-step change from mournful verse bridged to the next stage of grief being subtly catalyzed in the refrain:

“You know there’s nothing like the sorrow of the one who goes/
Or the grief of the one left behind/
When each is so deep into the other’s belongings/
What else would you expect to find?
But the sorrow of the one who goes/
Or the grief of the one who is left behind…”

Cutean played his Spanish guitar melancholia with a flourish on steel-string guitar that carried more cat-gut delicacy, evoking the precise pivot of lute in its quick-step change, augmented by Lewi Longmire’s sharp yet spare mandolin and accordionist Courtney Von Drehle’s old world shadowy echoes in the bellows.

Long-time musical and local journalistic collaborator Nancy Tannler slipped from behind the piano to join Cutean’s worldly band upstage on the historic Old Church’s pipe organ for an older audience favorite on the Country Fair-to-Kerrville Folk Fest Greenbelt circuit with “Standing People Trees.”

Conveying more Tibetan philosophical acceptance than agitprop resistance to the commodification of necessary natural resources, the ensemble shifted into a funkier roadhouse groove on another new and as yet unrecorded number “Wild-Eyed Blues.” Upright bassist Jason Montgomery shot this shuffle through with shifty jazz accents that young Von Trapp Family drummer Simon Lucas clicked right in with. Black Leather mandolin slinger Lewi Longmire shot out the Old Church’s lights with his solo. Power southern fried mando a la Lynrd Skynrd! Who knew?

Somehow that country blues shuffle segued gracefully into Cutean’s beat café finger-popping sassy “Three Little Letters” that turns the alphabet soup of our automated lives into a Ken Nordine / Lawrence Ferlinghetti Word Jazz with walking bass line number that brought forth a syncopated and joyous finger-snapping cricket chorus from the perseverating pews. Hear how it sounds reverberating off bookshelves in Eugene’s Tsunami indie bookstore with Eric Richardson’s hep-cat upright bass line leading the snapping chorus:

The second set feature some major set pieces from Cutean’s earlier breakthrough Hearthearthearth. “Mad In the Heavens” was recorded for YouTube from a live performance in 2011 at No’Po’s Alberta Rose Theater with the nimble Jason Montgomery on slinky string bass and Celtic fiddler Billy Oskay finding fretless ostinato cutting against Cutean’s phrasing.

At the Old Church, however, “Mad in the Heavens” took on a creepy/campy cadence of that seductive dance of the last century’s Argentine tango, only now with new coloring courtesy of Courtney Von Drehle replacing Celtic fiddler Oskay. The addition of the 3 Leg Torso accordionista to Cutean’s ensemble is the next best thing to Astor Piazzolla holding down the bandoneon chair!

From there Cutean romped through his election season bottom-of-the-barrel-scraping protest number “Hail to the Thief.” Although a bit dated rhyming the early aughts’ Iraq Weapons of Mass Distraction searching Swedish diplomat cum Mesopotamian Nuke-seeking inspector Hans Blix in the refrain’s closing couplet: “No more denials and no more Hans Blix-ing/This broken old system needs fixing.”

That then takes U.S. into the revelatory epilogue tagged to the end as if reading from today’s headlines on the Mein Trumpf Neo-Con campaign’s business ties with Premier Putin’s associates and Russian Oligarchs:

Because I love my country/
The best that I can/
But I think it’s time/
We start seeing other people.

The musical and heart felt highlight for many in The Old Church audience was a mystical camp-fire chestnut from Cutean’s Parakeet Fishead album, a kiss-off to the 1990s and the House of Clinton era named “A Small Word.” Its melodic chorus and koan-like verses cleansed the palate, allowing for Cutean to lead his tight band into the lush expanses of the two thematically linked pieces that close the new album.

Brian Cutean. Photo: Daniel Flessas.

Brian Cutean. Photo: Daniel Flessas.

The title of this new CD is taken from a line in the penultimate tune, “daybroughtlove.” That psilocybin-sensitive ode to the delicacy yet tensile strength found all around us, say in the “slenderest cobweb / trembled like a guitar string” and linked in imagery to the “spiraled double helix…recombinating fast” is juxtaposed with the sensual experience of our lives — perhaps like sensing the sound of photosynthesis, perhaps like the warming wash of love’s memory carried across time and space by melody that leaves us grasping for the revelation that our time here withholds. If you cry at the cumulus of Joni Mitchell’s life-cycle stages from childhood through old age in “The Circle Game” then cue the waterworks for Cutean’s follow-up concert- and album-closer “So Many Days.”

As poet Thom Gunn once essayed, there are The Occasions of Poetry. This night at The Old Church was an occasion for listening to and trying to sense The Sound of Photosynthesis. Reverie, warmth and mystery attended this occasion. I let myself be carried along with a well-thrummed and attentive audience in all its diversity as out into the warm summer night streets we flowed humming the melody to Cutean’s sprawling litany of paradox-laced discovery “So Many Days.”

The Sound of Photosynthesis

The Old Church concert will likely draw more listeners to Cutean’s new album, which distills nearly three decades of walkabout wisdom into the visual and aural masterpiece of his oeuvre. The Sound of Photosynthesis‘s artwork and layout create a powerful visual mytho-poetic totem integrating the painting by Ila Rose with a tri-fold lyric booklet and imaginative inner sleeve pictograph by Louise Docker that re-imagines Edvard Munch’s The Scream as some manual sound device whose Liftophone trade-marked tone-arm descends not to vinyl grooves but tree-rings with a human arm reaching up like a spindle.

The album is composed of 10 pieces recorded by a stylistically wide-ranging cadre of steady collaborators on live dates and session work, drawn from Brian Cutean’s life in Austin, Texas, Eugene, and Portland. The songs grapple with the forces tearing our society and interior sanctuaries to shreds, yet the aural collage techniques as well as the intimate small combo arrangements actually provide a serene yet dynamic foreground listening experience.


As various college/community radio free-formers have found, The Sound of Photosynthesis more than meets thematic questors halfway, with songs such as “Precarious” that leave welcome tactile aural and lyrical imprints like new sensations on a careful listener’s tech-frazzled psyche. Eugene, Oregon’s pliable and expandable trio Mood Area 52 provide nuanced musical backing to the recitative phrasing found in poet e e cummings’ musical use of language. Compare MA52 cellist Amy Danziger’s palette of color and timbre brought to Cutean’s true-to-cummings’ own recitation voice on “Anyone Lived In A Pretty How Town,” with the YouTube posting of the audio recording of Bay Area avant-garde vocalist/violinist Carla Kihlstedt’s double-tracking with the original cummings audio recordings. (KBOO’s Daniel Flessas has also multi-tracked the recordings of cummings, Cutean and Kihlstedt to delirious aesthetic effect.)

There’s a hint of Chicago’s folk-theater master Michael Smith’s “Something About Big Twist” in Cutean’s “Next Big Thing,” again balancing the whimsy of often bitter time-lapse wisdom with its sweet and sour getting. Oliver Steck’s after-tone trumpet on “Precarious” is one of the green fuses that drive, yet never forces, these flowers.

Cutean’s sequencing of the ten tracks displays sensitivity to the leitmotif found upon careful inspection of such segues as “Hitchin’ A Ride On Ol’ Man River” into “groWings” and the positively re-orienting walkabout soundtrack “Part of Everything That Is.” Why risk psychedelics or hallucinogens when nature invites each living creature to embed with The Sound of Photosynthesis? Homeostasis might just be an afterthought.

Mitch Ritter is a former Bay Area journalist for SF Weekly and the Bay Guardian. More recently he has covered the live music scene in Northern California and the Northwest for the international World Culture & Music newsstand magazine Dirty Linen, which was succeeded by an online incarnation, and an irregular contributor to The Outside World, airing over KBOO (listener-sponsored community radio 90.7 FM terrestrial in Po’Town streaming online sidereal to the wider world) beginning at midnight on Friday/Saturday morning.

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One Response. Have your say.

  1. Drew says:

    …when each is so deep into the other’s belongings…
    I first met Brian at the estate sale of his brother’s belongings, then, months later, helped him sell my friend’s mind-blowing collection of art.
    Hope you are well, sir.

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