Curlew – A Beautiful Western Saddle (1993, 2010 reissue CD+DVD)

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Before there was Sonic Youth, before there was Radiohead, Material, The Flaming Lips or the Animal Collective, there was Curlew. Founded by saxophonist/composer George Cartwright in 1979, Curlew soon became an incubator for just about every important name in the the New York downtown experimental music scene that thrived in the 80s and 90s. Kenny Wollesen, Fred Frith, Wayne Horvitz and Bill Laswell as passed through this seminal band before leading better-known projects of their own. But as Curlew settled into a stable lineup from the mid 80’s through the early 90s, the band gained a rep as one of the New York Underground’s top bands, helping to define the Knitting Factory sound and putting on head shaking live performances. The New York Times called them “the best of the unsigned, genre-busting downtown groups.”

“Genre-busting” is a term you can apply to so many musical acts these days (and here at Something Else, we affix that term to plenty of acts we like), but twenty-five years ago, few truly were, and maybe none were to the degree Curlew was. A contemporary pop/rock sonic canvas painted with styles of every hue: jazz, funk, blues, reggae, country, classical and a fair amount of free-form freakouts. Yet it all blended together into some sort of unified sound. During their “classic” period, Cartwright was joined by Davey Williams on guitar, Pippin Barnett on drums, Ann Rupel on electric bass and their secret weapon, Tom Cora on cello.

Cora was the wildcard in the group not only because he played an instrument that was unconventional for a contemporary small group, but also because he was such a dominant musician. As a solo performer, he could surprise and amaze audiences with the sounds he wrung for that cello, as we surveyed on not one, but two occasions. In truth, though, this was a band loaded with stars, who shone in whatever other group they were playing with, and during that time, they often were.

On May 18th, Cuneiform Records reissued Curlew’s fifth album A Beautiful Western Saddle, one for which the band received a lot a props for. It also involved a big risk coming from a band where risk taking is the very thing that characterizes them. Known as an instrumental group, Cartwright had decided to compose music around some poems by Paul Haines. Haines, who in addition to being a poet and writer, was a noted video video artist. This wasn’t the first time Haines’ poetry was set to music: his prose provided lyric to Carla Bley’s Escalator Over The Hill and Tropic Appetites, two major entries in her rich catalog of works.

Nonetheless, setting music to poetry that was written without intent to be set to song could be a daunting challenge. Any awkwardness can dilute the impact of both the words and the music. Still, Cartwright forged ahead and asked the other band members to contribute songs toward Haines’ poems as well. Then, the band asked vocalist Amy Denio to come and and lead sing the phrases. A musician herself, Denio also contributed the music for one of the poems (“What Is Free To A Good Home?”).

Harmonically, A Beautiful Western Saddle is vintage Curlew: full of quirky but catchy melodies, and tight arrangements. Somewhat surprisingly, Blaine’s fractured and angular prose does nothing to disturb this and even fits right in. Denio’s smooth and supple croon, along with her ability to phrase the verses around Curlew’s unwonted amalgamation of styles, makes the poetry go down easy. Sometimes, it works simply because she knows when to step back from the mic and let the band play, as when Cora is given ample room to bow his cello like a man possessed on tracks like “Still Trying,” or when Williams is able to run wild on “Such Credentials As Have Become Pseudonym.”

There’s one more reason why this works: the expanded group doesn’t take itself too seriously. The wit causes grins whether it’s Williams’ Southern drawl sermon delivered over the band’s church choir chorus on “Let’s Sit right Down/The Passing” or the clever in-phrase switching between Denio’s and male chorus vocals at the end of “What Is Free To A Good Home?” that sounds like someone was playfully switching between left and right channels. Cartwright jousts playfully with Cora on “The Prince,” matching the amusing tango vocal delivery of Denio. Every song is an adventure of a different sort.

These are studio recordings where it’s apparent the performances involve a lot of skill and creativity, but seeing these guys in a live setting adds to the appreciation of the complexity of what they’ve made look easy. For the reissue, Cuneiform makes this possible by adding a DVD of some gigs videotaped around the time Western Saddle was recorded: An eighty minute March, 1991 fully instrumental show at the original Knitting Factory in downtown New York previously released on VHS in 1992 as Hardwood, and an hour long December, 1991 performance at Washington D.C.’s DC Space. The first half of that show included Denio on vocals, where the band performs only songs from the then-upcoming Beautiful Saddle album.

The DVD of these live performances only serves to reinforce Curlew’s reputation as a must-see live act with remarkable chemistry, virtuosity and even humor. Here, you get to see Cora’s multi-faceted attacks on his cello, leaving no tonal possibilities out of that instrument left unused. Williams approaches his playing with the same anything goes attitude, perhaps the only guitarist I’ve come across whose style is in the same neighborhood as Marc Ribot’s. Cartwright’s sax retains a little Southern-fried soul that he must have brought with him from his native Mississippi, and it sets him apart from the other saxophone players of the NYC scene of which he had become a leading light. Rupel plays bass with passion and works extremely well with not just Barnett and Williams, but with a close ear on what Cora is doing, too. She is often the glue that pulls together all the contrasting elements of the band into a cohesive whole.

Since Hardwood was videotaped with the intent to sell copies of the video, the visual quality of this all-instrumental set is very well done and the recent remastering has made the sound quality exemplary. The DC Space gig isn’t quite up to that level but remains quite good. Plenty good enough to sense the fun Curlew was having performing with their temporary lead singer.

Denio didn’t stay with the band past this one record but Curlew still exists, although in a much different environment. Cartwright moved to the Twin Cities of Minnesota and took the band with him. The Knitting Factory is no longer downtown, having moved to Brooklyn last year, and has expanded the repertoire beyond experimental and jazz. The D.C. Space was closed forever at the beginning of 1992. Cora and Haines are both dead (cancer and heart attack, respectively). But the music contained in A Beautiful Western Saddle was lightening in a bottle that even given the developments in experimental music since then,
breathes with fresh air today.




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