Jandek: A Rare Treat

The Declaration – scene – March 15, 2007

This past Sunday the legendary Jandek played his 25th show (only his 10th in the U.S.) at the Firehouse Theater in Richmond. A considerable Charlottesville contingency was in attendance for the rare live appearance, and it was well worth the hour drive down I-64.

Jandek began releasing his own music in 1978 through his mail-order label, Corwood Industries. Since then, he has released around fifty albums of his distinct brand of unconventional songwriting. Over the years he has kept his identity almost completely anonymous. He has only allowed a couple of interviews and never offered any words about his own personal life. He did not perform live until October of 2004, when he appeared at the Instal Music Festival in Glasgow.

As a result, Sunday’s show began with an understandable aura of mystery. Around 150 people filled the seats of the theater and chatted with each other as they waited for the once-in-a-lifetime experience to begin. After a while, the stage lights brightened and the room hushed to an eerie silence. Dressed head-to-toe in black, Jandek and his backing band emerged from beyond the black curtain and picked up their instruments. Accompanying him were Richmond musicians Brian Jones and Curtis Fye, on drums and bass, respectively, and saxophonist J.C. Kuhl.

Without speaking the quartet began the first song, a flowing and messy tune that sounded like Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band on codeine. Jandek’s guitar work is as mysterious as the man himself. While his odd tuning, picking and strumming could be taken for random noodling, there is a disorienting and awe-inspiring orchestration in his playing.

For much of the first song his pale face, half-covered by his black hat, stared pensively at the wall of the theater. However, during the songs that followed, he struck more emotional poses. Bending his thin body with the notes of his guitar and holding his hands in the air while singing into the microphone, Jandek’s vocal delivery, like his guitar playing, was at the same time off-putting and strangely enticing.

While his singing strayed far from conventional melody, it worked in its own way, rising and dipping in interesting ways that inflected his lyrics. The combination of his guitar and voice was like schizophrenic, inverted blues from outer space.

While the other three musicians worked up into a few sweaty free-jazz frenzies, Jandek’s minimalist persona remained mute and cool for the entire show. After playing for well over an hour, Jandek switched off his amp and left the stage as quickly and quietly he had arrived. The audience gave him a standing ovation, and slowly filed out of the theater. The show certainly didn’t clear up any of the mystery that shrouds Jandek (the first comment my friend made after the show was that she had so many questions about what she had just seen), but the performance was gripping and memorable. So, if you get a chance to see Jandek, take it. If not, you can order his albums by sending a letter to Corwood Industries, P.O. Box 15375, Houston, Texas 77220.

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