‘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 Nigh’tshade 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.
When Chadbourne switches to a resonator guitar, things get really interesting. He plays a song from his vast catalogue of more than 100 albums. It bastardizes June Carter Cash’s “Ring of Fire” with Reagan-era political commentary about imperial manipulation in the Philippines, and references cheap manufacturing labor and sexual services to American GIs. Chadbourne plays a muted surf guitar attack, and then Doyle and Shoun follow with a solo of their own that sounds like a free-jazz freakout.
For the next several minutes, the ensemble performs what might be considered conventional songs swaddled in a membrane of experimental music. The sequence includes, at various junctures, quicksilver fret runs, a squawking conversation between Chadbourne’s guitar and Weichinger’s bass, a guitar solo full of Hendrixian fire, a free-jazz piano interlude, vexed punk-rock vocals, fuzz-tone punk guitar juxtaposed against pastoral acoustic guitar, demented spoken-word voicings, a melodic country ballad, staccato bursts of various instruments imitating each other.
When you think about it, Chadbourne’s songs make perfect sense. They typically combine lyrics with political satire, fetching melodic structures, use of a pedal to accomplish blatant and jarring switches in guitar tone, creative mash-ups of folk, noisy rock, jazz and country and a variety of vocal voicings according to the dramatic requirements of each composition.
A Vietnam-era draft dodger, Chadbourne is an unabashed leftist whose lyrics suggest a sinister view of American foreign policy and most forms of authority. He performs without apology or explanation songs like “Sex With the Sheriff” (about former Guilford County Sheriff James Proffitt who went down in scandal in the mid 1980s), “New New New War War War” (making an unpopular gesture of protesting the Afghanistan war) and a song that imagines Ronald Reagan as an international crime boss. The imminent arrival of the national patriotic holiday doesn’t deter Chadbourne and his cohorts. After beginning the second set by himself, Chadbourne is joined by the ensemble players. Fray stands behind the piano and commands in a stentorian voice: “Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the
National Anthem.” He hovers over the piano and pounds out the melody. Chadbourne also rises, scrunches his face and wobbles. The ensemble devolves into a free-jazz scrum, and Chadbourne plays a sample of Hendrix’s squalling version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the piece settles into a bluesy dirge.
The set climaxes about four hours after its start with a performance Chadbourne playing the electric rake — an instrument of his own invention. A metal garden rake with a microphone duct-taped to it, the axe makes a wooly screech with slight variations according to what its prongs graze. He drags it across the floor and ties one of Doyle’s shoelaces to a prong, and plucks it. Doyle plays some trumpet in accompaniment, then pulls out a cell phone to snap a photo of the spectacle. Chadbourne disengages, stalks the stage with the rake and then heads for the front door. He brandishes the tool at passersby, but the amplification doesn’t escape the inside of the storefront. The musical aspect of the performance seems to be largely lost on the strollers, who only see a disheveled middle-aged man wielding a rake attached to an extension cord.
As the show winds down, some unscripted anarchy transpires outside Mack and Mack. Chris Carr and Beau Wigington, two young men who respectively play acoustic guitar and banjo strike up a performance. Without rehearsal or previous acquaintance a young woman from the audience at Mack and Mack joins on clarinet, and Doyle strums a mandolin. A young man named DC Carter starts ad-libbing gritty soul vocals to the furious jam. The sidwalk swarms with onlookers, 25 or 30 strong.
“He’s going to be the next American Idol,” one woman comments. Inevitably, the cops break it up. “That was good,” says Officer Combs of the Greensboro Police Department’s Center City Resource Team. “If we can get you someplace like a park where a crowd can gather, that will be great.”
Eugene Chadbourne performs at Maya Art Gallery, at 340 Tate St. in Greensboro, on Aug. 8.’