Local Live

Ches Smith's Congs for Brums, Jesse Quattro, and Devin Hoff

Mama Buzz Cafe, Aug. 22


to see a show at Oakland café-art gallery Mama Buzz, the first rule is to get there early. I learned that on my first trip there in late July, when I excitedly showed up at 9:15, only to find that the night's festivities were already over. I felt like Harvey Korman in High Anxiety when he was penalized for arriving 30 seconds late to dinner by having his fruit cup taken away. "No fruit cup for me," I thought as I was driving back to San Francisco, feeling stupid and silly.

Monday's show was a chance for redemption, and although I got there at a relatively punctual 7:10, opener Devin Hoff was already midway through his solo contrabass set. Solo bass isn't an easy format – for the musician or the listener – but Hoff's well-paced performance held the attention of the couple of dozen audience members, even as the sounds of passing cars, clanging dishes, and chatting customers from the next-door café area competed with the music. He dedicated one piece, "Double Knife," to Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart, and it concluded in appropriately tormented fashion with some serious bow-scraping dissonance. He closed with a more melodic, melancholy piece that was reminiscent of Charlie Haden's music or Scott LaFaro's beautiful lump-in-the-throat solos with the Bill Evans Trio. Good stuff.

Next up was vocalist Jesse Quattro, accompanied on battery-powered keyboard by Secret Chiefs 3's Trey Spruance. Quattro has amazing range as a vocalist, which she often extends by running her voice through a battery of effects pedals. This night she used just one, and it was nice to hear her singing actual melodies in this stripped-down setting, a change from her noisier work with metalish bands Saint of Killers and Carniceria as well as her past solo sets. The duo played a brief, four-song set that included a couple of old Southern gospelish songs with creepy, pipe organ-like accompaniment by Spruance. The highlight, though, was their last song, a cover of a jaunty yet lyrically grim tune called "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" by Christian rock figurehead Larry Norman, of all people (as identified by a helpful and very surprised audience member).

The evening's headliner was drummer-percussionist Ches Smith's solo project, Congs for Brums. Along with Hoff, Smith makes up the other half of the bass 'n' drums (but not drum 'n' bass) postjazz duo Good for Cows. He just moved to LA, so he's not technically local anymore, but he was an important part of the Bay Area scene for so long that it seems fair to grant him an exception here. For a while it seemed like he was playing a gig in San Francisco every night of the week, at least when he wasn't touring. He's incredibly versatile, having been called on by everyone from ex-Geraldine Fibber Carla Bozulich to brainy jazz bandleaders such as Graham Connah and John Schott to musically literate indie rockers like Xiu Xiu and beyond.

Smith also played in Alex Newport's aggro, AmRep-style rock trio Theory of Ruin and has recently started playing in a new trio led by New York guitarist Marc Ribot.

His half-hour set reflected this versatility, combining all sorts of sounds and approaches into a smoothly flowing and very entertaining one-man show. A drum set, a vibraphone, cowbells, shakers, a mixing bowl, a bow, three sizes of drumsticks, and about five kinds of mallets – Smith had all this in his carefully arranged arsenal, and he used every bit of it in a careful, strategic fashion. Nonetheless, you get the sense that he could merely play the snare drum for 20 minutes, and it would still be entertaining.

That said, his vibraphone playing was his set's high point. He produced some amazing effects, such as a drooping glissando made by dragging the mallet slowly down the keys, as well as some high-pitched harmonics made by scraping the bow along the edges of the keys. It was all very musical, though, which isn't always the case when virtuoso musicians get into these sorts of extended techniques, as they call them in the avant-garde biz. Smith balanced these headier moments with sporadic outbursts of stadium-size, albeit odd-metered, rock drumming, which would in turn dissolve back into quieter, more textural noise making. This restless approach brought to mind the solo performances of Dutch drummer Han Bennink – minus the slapstick comedy element but with the same sense of joy at simply being able to bang on a bunch of different things and make a lot of neat sounds. Smith's well-received set was a fitting conclusion to an evening of swell sounds, and it was all over by 9. (Will York)