Eugene Chadbourne

by Jordan Green

Eugene Chadbourne

blows minds for a living

Experimental musician Eugene Chadbourne was fired from his first gig in Greensboro in 1979. Within a couple years, he had made the decision to relocate from New York to the Gate City. A student who had grown up in Greensboro booked a series of gigs for Chadbourne and Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo. The first was at what is now Sushi Republic on Tate Street. Chadbourne recalls that the two “were trying to play the weirdest music possible, and all the people eating dinner ran out.” After 20 minutes, the owner told them to stop playing. Their next gig was across the street at Amelia Leung’s establishment, the Nightshade Caf’. Chadbourne decided to level with Leung about their recent dismissal, thinking she might want to cancel their booking. “I heard something about that,” Chadbourne recalls Leung saying, inserting a pause for dramatic effect. “If you have the courage to play this kind of music, I don’t have any problem with it.” Chadbourne was developing a hybrid of avant garde and country music at the time. Purist notions of both genres prevented both musicians and audiences from embracing the marriage in New York, but they proved more receptive in Greensboro and other parts of the South. Chadbourne has lived here since 1981, raising three daughters with his wife and maintaining a busy recording and performing career. Many of those gathered on the eve of Independence Day for a concert by Chadbourne and the F-Art Ensemble at a Mack and Mack on South Elm Street say those early shows on Tate Street changed their lives. “The first time I saw Eugene was when I was a student at UNCG,” says Sara Jane Mann. “It was like he removed the top of my head. It sounds violent to say, but it’s consciousness raising. Like, wow, the possibilities. He played on Tate Street at the Nightshade Caf’. Amelia was like a mother hen to all of us punk rockers and weirdos.”

Chadbourne also made a distinct impression on Dave Doyle, who plays French horn and other instruments in the F-Art Ensemble. “He was the main reason we do what we do,” Doyle says, nursing a beer near the counter while Chadbourne plays a brief solo set. “I think a couple of us saw him at the Nightshade. We were all blown away. Shortly after that we started doing the same thing.”

The F-Art Ensemble accompanied Chadbourne a number of times in the 1980s, and Doyle joined Chadbourne and the late Jimmy Carl Black of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention for some shows a couple years ago. The F-Art Ensemble broke up in the late 1980s, but reformed in January and has been playing at Mack and Mack, a boutique clothing factory and retail store, every first Monday of the month since January. For this night, Doyle has recruited fellow Greensboro Symphony player Peter Zlotnick to play percussion. Zlotnick has never rehearsed much less played with Chadbourne. “Eugene is a real improviser,” Doyles says, “whereas the rest of us are professional musicians from the jazz and classical worlds. This is how we blow off steam.” Chadbourne opens the show at about 7:30 p.m. with a banjo, accompanied by the F-Art Ensemble: Doyle on French horn, Zlotnick on percussion, Gil Fray on piano, Jeff Weichinger on bass and Mark Shoun on trombone. At first, the music sounds like little more than tuning, more like a random assortment of notes than anything else. Gradually, the ensemble settles into a more folkish sound and Chadbourne sings what sounds like a strange, dark Appalachian ballad.

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Eugene Chadbourne, who has lived in Greensboro since 1981,specializes in avant-garde, country and other musical genres. (photo byJordan Green)