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Monday, September 5, 2022

Archival Downtown, Part One

Curlew - CBGB’s, NYC, 1987 (Cuneiform, 2022)

Curlew - Phantasmagoria 1998 + WFMU 1997 (Cuneiform, 2022)

By Lee Rice Epstein

“Hi, we’re Curlew, thanks for coming,” kicks off a 12-minute version of “Ray,” one of the harmolodic-adjacent group’s finest. It is 1987, and Curlew, a darling of the downtown NY scene, plays CBGB’s, one of their regular spots. When saxophonist George Cartwright later introduces the band members, his voice is Southern and laconic, disarming. The music, meanwhile, is all jittery limbs and downtown cool, a cousin to Decoding Society and Defunkt, miraculously descended equally from Prime Time, Parliament, and Patti Smith. Curlew’s sound is a heady mix of jazz, funk, country, blues, dub, punk, and rock, often all at once though not always in unison. And on two new archival releases, the group showcases all aspects of its sound across ten years and three hours of previously unreleased and newly mastered performances.

CBGB’s, NYC, 1987 features the “classic” (as much as any traditional concepts apply to Curlew) quintet lineup of Cartwright on saxophones, Tom Cora on cello, Davey Williams on guitar, Ann Rupel on bass, and Pippin Barnett on drums. Cartwright and Cora are a marvelous duo, brilliantly paired opposite Williams’s punchy guitar. Rupel and Barnett are a brilliantly nimble rhythm section, dropping dub-inflected heaviness into the opening of “To the Summer In Our Hearts,” then effortlessly sliding into the pointillist “Barking,” one of Curlew’s more obscure interludes scattered throughout the set. At times, the set feels like a flaming torch juggling act; “Oklahoma” starts on fire and burns hotter as it goes, with Cartwright playing a breathless solo before the mid-song changes lead to a brilliant, mid-tempo solo from Cora.

After Cora departed the group in the early ’90s, Chris Cochrane joined on electric guitar. Williams and Cochrane together strongly evoke the Bern Nix & Charlie Ellerbie lineup of Prime Time, with Kenny Wollesen on drums. By this time, Cuneiform Records had been Curlew’s home for several albums, and Phantasmagoria 1998 + WFMU 1997 features a hour-long set from a brief East Coast tour to showcase their latest for the label, Fabulous Drop. “August” opens the set with a quiet sax intro that slyly sets up Williams and Cochrane’s dueling guitars. Wollesen is, as ever, superb on drums, as fleet-footed as Barnett, with a slightly lighter touch, bringing in a swing feel where Barnett might have grooved. On “Argon,” Curlew kicks off with a reggae beat that gets chopped up and immediately reworked into a free-jazz freakout. By the mid-’90s, Rupel was playing a larger role in songwriting, and her “Fabulous Drop” (co-written with Cartwright) and “Gimme” highlight Curlew’s polyrhythmic chops. Sax and guitars swap melody and counter-melody, while Rupel and Wollesen gently (or not) urge them forward. Drawing entirely from Paradise and Fabulous Drop, the Phantasmagoria set finds the band still working through each song, unlike the relative stability of the 1987 set, where certain songs had been in rotation almost a decade. In this way, the WFMU set provides a fascinating alternate view of seven tracks, with the same quintet in a radio session the previous summer. For example, a slightly more raucous and ragged “Crazy Feet, Sensible Shoes” features Cochrane shredding and Cartwright screeching jubilantly.

The WFMU set has been online for a while, but the audio is slightly cleaned up and adds a ten-minute interview with Cartwright, Williams, and Cochrane. They discuss recording and mixing the album Fabulous Drop, and their other projects. The whole conversation is pretty much the kind of interview one would expect from Curlew, loose and goofy, generous and congenial. Everyone leaves smiling, exactly as it should be.

Available on Bandcamp


Gary Chapin said...

Curlew is part of my original story with this music. I love this stuff to pieces.

Lee said...

Awesome, Gary, you'll love these (if you haven't heard them yet).