David Thomas and Joanna Haigood explore the shadows of the American Dream
“There’s no real trick to living life like a ghost,” David Thomas assures an excited contingent of experimental music enthusiasts from a makeshift stage set up in performer Erica Blue’s Oakland warehouse residence. Best known for his iconoclastic avant-rock combo Pere Ubu, Thomas’s stage persona may be less openly confrontational than in younger days, but he wears the mantle of curmudgeonly grand-père with a sense of historical imperative.
Accompanied by multi-faceted musician (and jovial straight man) Ralph Carney on clarinet, Thomas’s additional instrumentation involved nothing more than a small button accordion punctuated by a few spare samples pulled up on a cigarette-ash-streaked iPad. His singing voice was weathered yet resonant, like the creaking of an old barn door, and he made good use of the melodic rumble of his speaking voice in the conversational manner of a clairvoyant storyteller, interspersing long, poetic passages from works such as “Mirror Man” with tragic-comic tunes such as “Sad.Txt.” admonishing that “time will catch up to you/like it caught me too.” Within each song shimmered an elusive portrait of the America of the dispossessed: roadside cafes and long lonesome stretches, broken hearts attached to broken people, living ghosts, and dark spaces. “I’m aware of the dark,” he crooned during his encore, while an empathetic shiver passed through the room.
Opening act, The Wounded Stag, an inventively disturbing collaboration between performance artist Dan Carbone and musician Andrew Goldfarb, a.k.a. The Slow Poisoner (plus a cameo appearance by dancer Erica Blue) provided a worthy introduction to the darkside, with lyrics like “please don’t let me go to heaven with a swollen gun in my pocket,” and "aren't we all already dead?" Crooning, warbling, screaming, even grunting like a monkey, singer-lyricist Carbone’s expressive use of props and masks underscored his theatrical background while Goldfarb, another amiable foil, provided the swamp-rock tinged musical ballast with his electric guitar and a single, expressive kickdrum.
On the other side of the Bay Bridge, Joanna Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theatre company was remounting their 2008 exploration of racism in America, The Monkey and the Devil at YBCA. Inventively set in an installation known as “a house divided” (designed by Charles Trapolin), two section of a single wooden edifice split in two and mounted on shaky, unbalanced foundations, Monkey featured two couples, one black, one white. Mocking each other’s mannerisms and posturing for dominance, the women started the piece off, culminating in a pitched battle royale in a boxing spotlight “ring”. Settling back into their separate quarters, they proceeded to hurl racially-charged epithets at each other in muted monotones until abruptly the tenor of the scene shifted to one of palpable threat as the men leapt to the top of each “house" and then through the windows, menacing the women with silence and measuring tapes which coiled and uncoiled like whips.
In the final tableau, each couple danced in desperate tandem, being spun violently around and around by a member of the other duo to a soundtrack of waves and traffic which crashed over their bodies slamming against the wooden walls of their unstable fortresses. After a pause the cycle resumed itself, this time with the men in the posturing position. Then once more with the women, an endlessly repeating loop, as fitting a metaphor for the persistence of racism in America as any written word.