SUNBURNED HAND OF THE MAN
Café Oto, Dalston, London
December 1 2011
I’ll come straight to the point: Sunburned Hand Of The Man were amazing tonight, a flawless demonstration of all that’s still fascinating about underground American music. The supporting acts, on the other hand, were not. Yet it’s going to be very hard to say this, because it’s difficult to be honest about how bad you found the two opening acts of any bill when you later find them to be members of the very headline act you’ve come to enjoy. However, such is the nature of the ever-shifting, amorphous and constantly regenerating collective that is Sunburned that such an anomaly is perfectly possible. And lo and behold, tonight, it happens.
First we’re treated to rhythm guitarist Hush Arbors’ sit-down solo meanderings, none of which manage to grab me melodically in any way whatsoever. Violinist Samara Lubelski, here swapping her usual four strings for those of a strummed variety and also sat in classic introspective pose, is more interesting, as the ethereal, haunting nature of her vocals and the loneliness of her chord structures call to mind Edith Frost or even Linda Perhacs. But both of them did it so much better, and again, nothing grabs you. Is the Sunburned set going to be like this? Have they slid down the road into Americana hell? Please Gawd tell me it isn’t so….
Seeing the aforementioned two people wander onstage as members of the band helps to further raise my concern, but luckily, I needn’t have worried. From the opening shafts of echoing, rattling guitar noise to each twist and turn of the drums, thrumbling along betwixt the propulsive, the doomy and the downright awkward, this was a practical masterclass in how to do space rock 2011-style, with occasional diversions into the ‘free folk’ with which the band first made their name. Taking the swirling, dense topographies and driving attack of Neu!, Les Rallizes Denudes, Miles Davis, early Terje Rypdal, the Magic Band, Hawkwind and the Velvets but adding a more jagged, rural edge, Sunburned often teeter on the edge of the unclassifiable, with special guests Jim O’ Rourke (guitar) and Thurston Moore (guitar and readings from various odd texts, playing the first of three gigs in London that week) lending further credence to this.
Moore, a man who once claimed punk origins and a desire to ‘kill’ prog rock, is in truth anything but, and tonight did not go ‘ning ning ning’ on his axe in the time-honoured fashions of US indie, but instead thrashed and belted a flurry of sonic tapestries from six strings that would have done Chris Karrer or Tony McPhee proud. Such things will no doubt fly straight over the heads of the audience’s hipster-beard contingent, but they probably won’t read this anyway. Enough, though, of the guest star: SHOM have always been, like the Spontaneous Music Ensemble before them, about collective and unilateral improvisation (not to mention pulsing psychedelic energy) and it’s that very cross-pollination of ideas within an hour-long set that I personally find entrancing. After a slow-burning, almost bluesy interlude, violins and pianos come further to the fore, scraping and jarring in a standoff of strings, until the ensemble regain their regularity of pulse and finally erupt again into an expectedly chaotic finale: a one off occasion to treasure, as the next time you see them they’ll be completely different.
I can’t even tell you any songtitles, as chances are they made up what I heard tonight there and then on the spot and it will never be repeated, regurgitated or appropriated by the hands of industry. That’s the beauty of singularity for you. If only I hadn’t been so worn out by the uninspiring earthbound supports (even though within the context of the group, both were exemplary) tonight could have been a perfect, albeit somewhat brief, sojourn into a mysterious universe.
DARIUS DREWE SHIMON