Greensboro’s secret avant-garde surfaces

by Amy Kingsley

One could be forgiven for thinking that, on the night of June 27, Greensboro briefly emerged from its dowdy provincialism into the welter of the postmodern world. The feeling wasn’t universal perhaps, but manifested itself in a couple of unusual and surprisingly worldly musical performances.

Hundreds packed the seats in Dana Auditorium to witness the transformation of 1980s hitmeister Billy Joel into a respectably turtleneck-clad classical composer. And across town, closer to a dozen people gathered in the pews at the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant to hear classically trained musicians’ take on Billy Idol.

The latter performance came courtesy of Brooklyn-based New American Wing. The trio comprised of guitarist/composer Daniel Raimi, cellist Brent Arnold and trumpeter John McDonough slipped a rearranged version of ‘“White Wedding’” into the third slot of their set list. New American Wing’s translation maintained intact the familiar verse refrain, but deconstructed the rest of the song into buoyant classical tidbits.

The trio has been playing together for roughly nine months, although McDonough joined the group recently. They have recorded a CD and played Greensboro as part of a short tour of the Southeast. They performed at the Church of the Covenant fresh off a Richmond gig performed in one of the country’s oldest firehouses.

The church might not possess the same historical cache, but it’s a pretty nice venue, particularly during the summer’s waning evening hours. The setting sun illuminates the stained glass, washing the curvy pulpit in a warm glow.

That was how the makeshift stage was lit when a jazz trio consisting of banjo player Eugene Chadbourne, pianist Dave Fox and upright bass player Pat Lawrence commenced the performance. Although the three usually improvise, they put that aside in favor of a set consisting of their versions of jazz classics. Fox, Chadbourne and Lawrence are more than just veterans of a Greensboro jazz scene anchored somewhere between the UNCG School of Music and Tate Street Coffee. They are its heroes.

Like the best of the avant-garde jazz innovators, the trio of accomplished musicians paired experimental song structure with obvious musical chops. Although the songs might have occasionally meandered down their own illogical and emotional path, they always returned to the major theme in a flurry of notes as beautiful as a blizzard.

Over the past couple of months, Chadbourne in particular has been instrumental in bringing avant-garde composers to Greensboro. Early this year he arranged a concert at the Church of the Covenant for Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone, two jazz musicians from Brooklyn. As it turns out, those two are friends with members of the New American Wing and helped them book their Southeastern tour.

But it is not the first time that Raimi had heard of Chadbourne. The Durham native left North Carolina to attend college at Wesleyan University. His advisor knew Chadbourne and encouraged Raimi to send a copy of the New American Wing recording to the legendary avant-banjoist. Raimi followed up, and Chadbourne rewarded his moxie with a glowing write-up of the band on the online musical resource All Music Guide (

The Chadbourne connection also landed them in Greensboro where New American Wing cooked up a genre stew of musical styles: Americana, jazz and classical among others. In ‘“Dogs Silence,’” McDonough worked his trumpet into a dog whimper over the pop-classical played by the guitar and cello.

Despite their high-class pedigrees (Raimi’s Wesleyan degree and Arnold’s stint in the musical conservatory at Oberlin) the musicians had no qualms about borrowing from pop culture. In addition to the Billy Idol cover, Raimi gamely acknowledged his television preferences in the intro to the song ‘“Smiling the Blues with Tenderness.’”

‘“It’s a line from the ‘Family Matters’ theme song,’” he said.

It’s refreshing, in a time when punk rock has become popular music equivalent of the moral majority, that the avant-garde has developed a sense of humor. Such drollness is a good thing for New American Wing as well, since they share their name with an obscure Midwestern cult that seems to be a cross between Christianity and Scientology.

That association has imbued their song ‘“Third Man’” with extra meaning, Raimi says. It’s named after the classic Carol Reed film noir ‘— another referential nod ‘— but might also allude to the cult’s Scientology-esque hierarchy.

In fact their name came from a poster introducing the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s New American Wing. It’s an ambitious-sounding moniker that hasn’t yet convinced Greensboro residents to take them more seriously than the Piano Man.

Maybe next time they should take a crack at ‘“Uptown Girl.’”

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