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Fig (Nels Cline + Yuka Honda) at The Stone

By Bijan Rezvani
Monday, March 22nd, 2010
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by Bijan Rezvani

Here at Thirteen.org, we’ll be producing more written content.  I’ll be writing about music, often covering events happening in the city, sometimes discussing broader musical topics.

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yuka honda, nels clineLast Friday Yuka Honda and Nels Cline, best known for their projects Cibo Matto and Wilco, united for their third or fourth performance as Fig, a sort of electro-acoustic experiment pairing Honda’s diverse sound sources and computerized rhythms with Cline’s genre-crossing guitar work.

I first encountered Nels Cline performing in an impressive revisit to Coltrane’s Ascension with ROVA Orkestrova, Otomo Yoshihide, and a group of Downtown artists including Fred Frith and Ikue Mori about five years ago in San Francisco. I had never seen Yuka Honda live, but had enjoyed her solo releases on the Tzadik label. I came to the show curious to see what the pair would produce.

A long line quickly sold out East Village experimental haven The Stone, where I somehow landed in the chair closest to the performers  just before people started sitting on the ground. Calling The Stone intimate is probably an understatement.  With no refreshments, a bathroom positioned to be off-limits during performances, and two small sections of fold-out chairs, it reaches capacity quickly.

After some setup trouble, the duo went downstairs and re-emerged, Honda wearing a sort of black leotard-jumpsuit-dress-with-fabric-cubes-down-the-shoulder, ready to perform.

The hour of  music was well-programmed, beginning with a playfully simple moment of bells and kalimba with unprocessed flute tones. The set energized with Honda on keys and drum patterns, Cline on guitar, both using noisy electronic toys of all sorts.

What Cline described as a “Mickey Mouse setup” came with early technical miscues.  One microphone had a series of violent feedback interjections while a PA monitor died repeatedly.  The troubles were disruptive enough to make Honda scream and have Cline jokingly chant into the microphone “We were paid for this, we were paid for this…”

Fortunately, the performers and Stone crowd had the right sense of humor about equipment trouble, which often comes hand-in-hand with any experimental, improvised, or rough electronic music.  The musicians managed to work through the technical issues and play the set for which we had all come.

One of my favorite pieces was a song called “Tokyo Night Janitor,” which began with a visual, evocative poem of a janitor leaving for work as everyone else returns home, set to Cline’s sweet and inviting guitar melodies.  A mention of the janitor’s thoughts and daydreams erupted in a pummeling noise jam as aggressive as any other.

Most songs developed around Honda’s machined drum patterns, allowing the duo to meander their riffs loosely and then tightly around a reliable groove.

Just when I was ready to criticize one of Honda’s electronic rhythms as a plodding bore, she used a Tenori-on to develop an infectious skittering sequencer rhythm to which Nels played along.  For those who can fit their sequences and fingers into its somewhat cramped form, the Tenori-on is a great performance piece from the audience perspective, as its transparent backside allowed us to watch the pattern sequence without requiring the awkward but effective back-slant of a setup like Daedelus’ monome.

Another song featured a more traditional drum palette and heavy guitar riffs that reminded me of King Crimson. The set ended softly with a sublime guitar-poetry duet.

Ultimately, it was a set of playful, enjoyable music that could probably gain from some tech polish.  Although they functioned beautifully in a live environment, these explorations would sound great on a studio album, something I’m hoping we’ll hear about soon.

Speaking of recordings, Yuka Honda has a new album out on Tzadik that I recommend, Heart Chambers.  Great sounds and guest contributions.  Nels Cline always has a lot going on, which you can check on his website.

For those who don’t know (those of you who know already know), The Stone is a fantastic space for music.

Next Show: Friday – The Ruby Suns & Toro Y Moi @ Brooklyn Bowl + Interview w/TYM


  • BenInBrooklyn

    Great review. I’m a big Nels Cline fan – catching him several times with Wilco (my favorite band), and on his several tours with Mike Watt (also an old favorite).