MusicWatch Weekly: Farewell to the king

In which we bid adieu to Neil Peart and comfort ourselves with winey classical marimba, saturnalian psalms, and an operatic sistah

Before we get into this week’s concerts, we’d like to spend a moment talking about Neil Peart, may he rest in well-deserved peace. Peart was always the present author’s favorite drummer to talk shit about. That’s true of all drummers, if they’re honest: spend more than an hour in any given drum shop and talk will eventually turn to discussions of most overrated drummer and so on, and Peart always tops everyone’s list. It’s a curious variant on sour grapes–we all begrudgingly admit the man’s skill, but we decry what often seems like metronomic bad taste. If I had chops like that (we all boast, twirling our Vic Firths), I would play more tastefully.

It’s a bad faith criticism, although it holds an element of truth. Peart was famous for his huge drumset and occasionally overblown playing, but the “human drum machine” jab doesn’t quite stick–not least because he used that oversized kit to bring a beautiful melodicism to his drumming, a musicality which is, in our estimation, the real reason so many drummers get touchy about him. There’s some sick drummerly impulse to talk shit on drummers who seem to get above themselves (consider Phil Collins), and lyricist Peart with his giant triplikit certainly fits the bill.

It’s true that Peart was a little too much in his head at times, but whenever I dig back into my favorite Rush albums (invariably the live ones) I’m impressed by how driven he was to keep up with his powerhouse bandmates, Geddy Lee in particular. Since Lee was essentially three musicians in one–throwing Robert Plant vocals over the John Paul Jones bass-and-keyboard double whammy–Peart was always working overtime to bring a commensurate level of sophistication to the rest of the rhythm section.

This is how he ended up with that huge kit. All those toms unlock melodic possibilities unavailable to us four-piecers, intricate fills and grooves with crinkly layers of contouring to match Alex Lifeson’s shimmery riffs and Lee’s busy bass grumblings. Glockenspiel, chimes, gongs, Spike Jones cowbells, electronic mallet instruments, and all the rest of that bright and heavy efflorescence turned Peart into a coloristic percussion ensemble to match the sound worlds created by Lee’s keys and Lifeson’s veil of sound.

And as the band’s style evolved, Peart’s array evolved along with it. He could rotate around to the electronic drum kit midway through a live show to play a whole set of new wavey ‘80s tunes from Grace Under Pressure and Hold the Fire, rotating back for a Buddy Rich-inspired snare solo and right back into the ‘70s hits.

Because Peart kept evolving as a player. On early live albums you can hear heady Apollo warring with hoary Dionysus, a raging feistiness imbuing his rudiment-laden odd-metered grooves with a desperate, almost ragged quality which certainly made for great art. But over time Peart both settled down and expanded, taking jazz lessons late in his career and augmenting his drum kit percussion ensemble with advanced technology that eventually amounted to a portable digital orchestra.

It wasn’t until recently that I appreciated the musicality of Peart’s lyrics. Never mind the meanings behind the words: much of it is terrific science fiction, although there are more than a few stinkers and plenty of pretty juvenile libertarian rants. Peart is in good company–we could lay all the same laurels and demerits at Heinlein’s feet–and to be fair even his libertarianism got more nuanced over time.

What I’m talking about here, though, is the sound and rhythm of the words, the endless puns, the attention to poetic details like balanced rhyme schemes and contoured vowel arcs. It’s the sort of thing you get when music nerds compose for each other; Peart spent decades writing for Lee’s surreal and powerful voice, and that friendly union of word and voice gives the Rush catalog a nicely blended musical integrity.

In the end, what made Peart great was that he was a musician perfectly adapted to his environment, a half-human Spock to Lee’s Kirk and Lifeson’s Bones, a rock steady Leia to Lifeson’s spooky Luke and Lee’s freewheeling Solo. Before we get into this week’s octet of genre-busting concerts, we’d like to share one of our favorite Peart performances: a pair of 1978 Hammersmith Odeon recordings from the Farewell to Kings tour. “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1” showcase the Peart I love best, the curious and confident prog drummer taking his proper seat at the power trio table.

The king is dead! Long live the king!

Day by day

Just a moment while I put on Clockwork Angels. Ah, there we go. Now, you’ve got a show every night for the whole next week–no more excuses! We’ll start with percussionist Chris Whyte and Third Angle New Music’s Wine Wednesdays. I’m saying this show is happening “tonight,” even though it starts at 5:30, because “night” during Oregon Second Winter starts around three in the afternoon. The good news is you can hear a little sweet classical music and still get home in time for a quiet evening in.

We went to the last one of these Wine Wednesdays in November, still high on Jack London grooves, and got to hear an hour of beautifully difficult bass clarinet music played by composer and Oregon Symphony principal clarinetist James Shields (with a little help from cellist Laura Metcalf). It was a terrifically intimate show, and only two things could have made it better: we would have loved it if Shields had played some of his own work, and we’ll be really excited when this town finally gets its act together and opens a few Amsterdam-style coffee-and-weed bars.

Whyte is one of four busy percussionists that make up the stellar Portland Percussion Group, one of the area’s best defenders and cultivators of the relatively young classical percussion tradition. His restless energy has him squeezing his marimba into the skinny little Pullman Wine Bar by the Convention Center, where he’ll play Kenji Bunch’s Triple Jump, Eric Sammut’s Piazzolla arrangement Libertango, “Fleet” from Jacob Druckman’s Reflections on the Nature of Water, Leo Brouwer’s A Day in November, Toshio Hosokawa’s Reminiscence, Emmanuel Sejourne’s Nancy, and Michael Burritt’s Fermo.

Thursday night at Mississippi Studios, masked genre-slayers Kulululu stage another of their initiation rites. We love this Portland band, a wild septet of local musicians who like to put on masks and play megaweird, child-like, proggy chanty ska punk on psychedelic guitars and trombone and bass clarinet, like a marching band Devo invading a college town thrift store. Come early for the horn-laden local openers, Maurice & The Stiff Sisters and toyboat toyboat toyboat.

You have two exciting options Friday night, but since you’ll hear all about 45th Parallel’s Les Boreades performance in our interview with 45||’s Ron Blessinger tomorrow we want to tell you about something completely different.

One of Oregon’s great charms is the consistent polystylism of its artists. It’s never just a punk band, it’s always a proggy punk band with surfy guitars and scifi lyrics. Local multi-media artist Treneti isn’t just a musician or a ritualist, nor is she simply a soul/world music-inspired vocalist/bassist with a new album out–Psalms of Saturn–and a record release show Friday night at The Old Church. No, dear reader, Treneti’s concert is a full-blown community ceremony: a book of photography and poetry to accompany the Saturn return themed album; a stage full of dancers and visual projections; altars around the venue; there’s even an elixir bar and a ceremonial cacao bar providing “alternative non-alcoholic plant-based libations” (Third Angle, take note).

That all sounds like a terrific time, Portlandy as hell and appropriately polysensory. But, as always, we’re mainly interested in the music. Treneti was kind enough to let Arts Watch take a preview listen to Psalms of Saturn (you can hear the “seedling” ep right here), and it’s pretty potent stuff, dark and groovy and trippy, a decent pairing with opener Dolphin Midwives’ recent Liminal Garden.

Here’s a game you can play while watching Ghostbusters with a live Oregon Symphony score on Saturday: since that old extended SNL sketch is clearly a thinly-disguised Marx Brothers movie, let’s try and decide who each character represents. Bill Murray’s shady Venkman is obviously Groucho, with Sigourney Weaver’s Dana a perfect ‘80s update of Margaret Dumont. Wordy, nerdy, acerbic Harold Ramis channels Chico as Egon, the surly scientist who actually gets everything done. Carefully watch Dan Ackroyd’s doughy Ray and consider how little he talks, how little he says when he does talk, how much he says with a face or a gesture: that’s our Harpo. And Ernie Hudson’s working class straight-man Winston Zeddemore even shares a Z name with straight man Zeppo. Your assignment: who is Rick Moranis in this equation?

Every band in the world is presently scrambling to learn an Easy Rush Song, and it’s hard not to imagine “klezmer-punk” accordionist Geoff Berner and Seattlite anti-fascist folk-punk trio Brivele ripping out klezmer renditions of “YYZ” and “Tom Sawyer” during their show together at The Old Church this Sunday. Operatic soprano Angela Brown brings her popular solo show “Opera…from a Sistah’s Point of View” to Portland City Blessing Church for a free performance Monday afternoon. We doubt she’ll be singing “YYZ,” but it’s still bound to be an entertaining performance.

Nordic folk band Sver is playing two concerts in Portland next week. Their Monday performance at Abbie Weisenbloom House is, hail Odin, sold out–but their workshop and house show on Tuesday at an undisclosed location on North Killingsworth, hosted by nyckelharpist Amy Hakanson of local folk band Varelse, is still open to the public. And that’s fine with us, since we didn’t want you to know about Abbie Weisenbloom House anyways.

Stay warm, dearest Oregon, and we’ll see you next week!

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