It’s hard to think of a musician whose discography is as far-ranging in tone, mood, and texture as Stephen Stapleton’s. His prolific output as Nurse With Wound has included trance-inducing drones, hellacious tape cut-ups, and Krautrock homages — all guided by dark sense of humor and the Surrealist’s assertion of the primacy of the unconscious, that, to quote Andre Breton, “Man is but a plaything of his memory.” Words that ring even truer when thinking back on NWW’s March 26 show at the Great American Music Hall. After the jump, our San Francisco-based music guru Matt Sussman reviews the avant-garde legend’s rare performance.
It was his second local appearance in over a year, pretty astonishing considering NWW has only recently started performing after a two decade no-concert rule. Although the music ranged from long ambient passages shot through with sinister tinkling to random interjections of folk songs (sung by guest vocalist and opener irr.apt.(ext.)’s M.S. Waldron), what the sustained mood was one of low-level dread.
Setting the evening’s tone, local Jim Haynes added plenty of visual punch to his low-level, crackly drone, pouring various bits of natural detritus onto a vibrating speaker. The resulting mélange of dancing sand and dirt particles, glass shards and dead bugs was magnified to grotesque proportions via an overhead camera.
Frequent NWW collaborator irr.apt.(ext.) was next, and clearly presented a case of how not to do an improv set. Waldron played a treated drum kit, while his partner let loose proggy analog synth lines. Neither seemed to really be listening. Thankfully, both musicians seemed to recognize that it just wasn’t working and mercifully cut their set short.
When Stapleton took the stage, he was flanked by five other musicians — two of whom were the from irr.apt.(ext) — handling a variety of guitars, keyboards, samplers and effects pedals. The lights were kept low to better see the series of astounding videos being projected behind them. As the group warmed up a queasy concoction of sustained synth tones and effects-heavy vocalizations, images of an apartment — covered in blood, then set aflame, then underwater — flickered like outtakes from a David Lynch film.
Only when Waldron launched into the aforementioned folk songs did the spell break, much to the audience’s chagrin. Certainly, Stapleton has always had an ear for the random outburst, but Waldron’s bad Tom Waits impersonations seemed more about him having an American Idol moment than about adding anything worthwhile to the mix. But when Stapleton launched into a finale of “Rock n’ Roll Station” — the Jacques Berrocal cover that has become a NWW standard — stepping out in from of his equipment bank to take the mic in a panda mask, all could be forgiven.
See some images from the evening here.