Kiwi Tracks: Surf + Klezmer = Surfing USSR

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Surf + Klezmer = Surfing USSR

I started writing this post twice already and both times I was punished with a browser crash! It made me angry to the point of resigning the task thinking: I'm not meant to write about this subject.
But I misunderstood the cue: it simply made me wait until I was ready to write this post. What was originally intended to be an announcement turned into more of a review (with an exiciting announcement at the end).

But let's start with what this post is all about.
Last week I came upon an announcement of a concert/short film screening-event organized by the Physics Room. The name of the band caught my attention instantly: Surfing USSR!
Well, I have to admit I wasn't familiar with this band at all (having just moved to ChCh last year), but it seemed to be a Surf band. Doing a little research on this band wetted my appetite even more. Surfing USSR blends Surf music with Klezmer.
My friends know that I have a a bit of an unique taste in music (a bit of that can be heard in the teahouse). Anyways, two of my favourite musical flavours are Surf and Klezmer music. Generally speaking, the two have not much in common: Klezmer is the spiritual music of Jews and rooted in century-old traditions while Surf music developed as the expression of a young generation in the late 50s/early 60s as a style of the then new rock music. Despite these differences they share one important element: a sense for sweet melodies! In Klezmer music, these are usually presented by a clarinet, while the guitar does the melodic work in Surf music. Surfing USSR takes melodies from traditional Klezmer tunes and transforms them into something that fits both genres perfectly (don't get me wrong, it isn't anything like traditional Klezmer music, more like the avantgarde Klezmer/Jazz from John Zorn's Tzadik label).
Originally, I wanted to write an announcement of the concert/movie performance that happened last night. Now, that I've seen them last night at the SOFA gallery in the Arts Center, I'll let you know what I thought of the performance.
I went there with the expectation of a concert rather than an art event (I guess I should've read the flyer more thoroughly!). It turned out to be a seated event with Surfing USSR supplying a live soundtrack for a selection of New Zealand short films. The movies covered a wide range from experimental collages (9417597 by Lissa Mitchell) to social commentary (Mad Scientist by Mike Heynes). The music contributed a good part to tricking me into initially believing that those short films were old films from Russia (the root of Klezmer is in Eastern Europe and most melodies have a "Russian" sound to them). But I found out from the program that all films were made by New Zealanders.
This event was a great example of how music can greatly enrich your visual experience (another excellent showcase that I was fortunate enough to witness was Lambchop's live soundtrack to Murnau's "Sunrise").
The band was incredibly tight despite the fact that one of the members now lives in Auckland and they haven't played a gig together since 2005! Chris O'Connor on drums supplied some very pointed musical commentary to the films and came up with an equally compelling and unusual set of percussion. Marc Howe on bass formed the stable base of the band, tying it all together. And Greg Malcolm on guitar created a sound that ranged from (mostly) sweet melodies to short noisy bits. The band's ability to change tempo effortlessly (that might be one of the reasons why someone compared them to Frank Zappa, who reportedly required his band members to change from a Reggae to a Ska rhythm instantly) and make it all sound so easy was very impressive. While most pieces were Klezmer-inspired, some pieces ventured slightly more into the realm of experimental sounds. An example was the piece accompanying the film 9417597 which reminded me of a track by Windy & Carl (from their phenomenal "Antarctica" release) in its use of repetition to create a certain mood.
... Listening now to their CD "Surferdelic", I'm sometimes reminded of the guitar work of one of my favourite jazz guitarists, Bill Frisell (especially on "Resurrection of the dead") ...

Since they announced a short-notice (I think, Greg called it "private") concert at the Wunderbar tonight at 8 p.m., I can only urge anybody with a interest in surf/klezmer/avantgarde/noise/jazz to come and see them perform. I'm sure it's gonna be a great night!

Thank you Greg, Marc & Matt for the show last night (and thanks to the Physics Room for making it possible). I'll see you tonight.

Note: Don't take my (amateurish) word for it, check out the review of their album "Surferdelic" from THE expert in Surf music, Phil Dirt, on Reverb Central.

UPDATE 18 Sep: The concert last night at the Wunderbar was very exciting. The small audience was treated to some great musicianship and truly awesome music. Chris, I've seen some amazing drummers (off the top of my hat: Michael Sarin in Dave Douglas' String Quartet in 1995 or 1996 was a revelation) and you rock! As I said to you, I have no idea how you can possibly coordinate your limbs and brain. It all seems so natural (and fun). Marc, I have great respect for your ability to keep those two (Greg & Chris) together and under control; I imagine that to be quite a task. And Greg, thanks for your guitar work. I appreciate your urge to experiment which isn't often found in a musician who commands his instrument as perfectly as you do. Thanks again for another great night (and thanks for "What is it Keith?", I quite liked it on first listen).

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