Last Night at Zebulon: Skeletons and Michael Chapman

Dale W. Eisinger

Zebulon’s bane is also its boon: every show is free. I don't think there's a venue with a better selection of music in New York (save maybe The Stone) and to always offer it up sans cover just emphasizes what seems to be a mission to keep the avant-garde alive.

So though the music, aesthetic and price are fantastic, those there to gab can overpower the gentler sets. Maybe it would be all right if we used some of that elbow room to elbow out those just there for the drinks – it’s not like Williamsburg is lacking in bars.

Case in point: Michael Chapman’s excellent but quiet set last night. The folk guitar careerist, now in his 70s, is about to embark on a large tour with Bill Callahan but has been warming up his 2011 set around the East Coast.

Tuesday night, he undulated between the instrumental guitar heroics and downplayed, almost spoken-word, vocal overtones of his discography – and at times the crowd couldn’t be bothered to take notice. For a man of such history and skill – reminding contemporarily of early Kurt Vile – it was surprising he didn’t command more attention.

It’s almost unbelievable that what likely was a grip of Vile acolytes wouldn't shut up for Chapman, but I was also reminded of two things -- 1) Chapman came up in the English bar scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s and probably could give a damn about the din. 2) Vile cultivated the Violators perhaps because a band commands an audience by pure force and volume alone.

But as Chapman went on Tuesday night, reminiscing on do-nothing jobs where he played the guitar out in the woods, and getting a straight-up campfire feel going, with fans seated around him on the floor, he took charge of his guitar with a surprising force and volume, eventually dominating the room alone.

Brooklyn’s own Skeletons were celebrating the night as an album release show, two months late, on the heels of their gorgeous new Crammed Discs LP, People. Playing as the core three-piece of the band -- Matt Mehlan, Jason McMahon and Jonathan Leland – they sounded incredibly tight, their command of dynamic and tension hypnotizing.

It still amazes me this band isn't any bigger than they are. Instinct says they are too “arty” or whatever for conventional tastes, but with such intricate compositions and bold lyrical poetic, I honestly believe there’s something here for everyone. Lead Skeleton Mehlan throws down complex lines, rivaling the imagery of Yoni Wolf and the stark potency of Charlie Looker. And similar to Why? or Extra Life, Skeletons have an unshakable jazz bent, blurring the distinctions between straight and swing in a way that’s nearly unspeakable.

Perhaps the standout song of the night was People’s leading track “Grandma.” For a full five minutes, the band plays a spiraling polyrhythm, then breaks into a dense and brief cacophony, emerging out of the squall into a placid stroll, Mehlan almost whispering the line “there’s no calm without the storm.” But the night was full of these bombardments from People, quickly becoming my favorite release of 2011.

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