I just got back from vacation in Vico Equense, a town on the Sorrentine peninsula in southern Italy. The people there seem wealthier than when I last visited a dozen years ago, and that has triggered some changes in the local culture. You hear more standardized Italian instead of the Neapolitan dialect on the streets now, and it is no longer common to see laundry hanging on lines across buildings.
It served as a reminder of Greenpoint’s recent influx of residents in high-paid professions, and the lively debate over what the neighborhood has gained and lost from that demographic shift.
On vacation, I made the bold move to rent a car instead of using mass transit. Drivers there are relatively polite, and the roads are well-paved, but street signs are contradictory, inaccurate, or nonexistent. A circle with a slash through it could mean either “don’t park on this corner” or “the road you are on just turned into a one-way road running the opposite way, and you are about to have a head-on collision.” Every smartphone navigation app I tried failed after the first bend in the road.
It brought to mind a Yogi Berra saying: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” While we were driving there, my wife commented, “Now I understand why your thoughts meander in bizarre directions most of the time,” because some of my ancestors emigrated from the area.
Still, there is great joy in driving roads that demand constant improvisation, heightened senses, and a good sense of humor. They reminded me of the twists and turns and surprises you find in the performances of a jazz legend, or a good jam band like the Grateful Dead or Phish. So this weekend’s music picks focus on bands that emphasize improvisation in their songs.
Jazz, of course, invented improvisation, and Kermit Ruffins is ready to have you jumping around to some classic blazing brass swing at Brooklyn Bowl (62 Wythe Ave.) this Friday at 8 pm.
It has been a long time since you could regularly catch Ruffins play a dive in the Bywater district of New Orleans, and then hang out with him and his band around a barbecue after the show. Gentrification of the Bywater district, and the demands of Ruffins’ touring schedule, ended that. He still shines, though, in club-size spaces like the Brooklyn Bowl, where he can make an intimate connection with the audience during long improvisations and skat inventions.
Improvisation even appeals to some punk bands. Palberta, playing Silent Barn (603 Bushwick Ave.) on Friday at 8 pm, first sounds like just familiar fuzz-guitar rebellion. Listening further, you realize that the band uses a lot of discordant melodies and deconstructed tempos to travel the crooked back roads of their songs and discover new angles and emotions within. Guerilla Toss and Freind are on the same bill tonight. Guerilla’s wailing guitar and frenetic synth punk mash reminds me of Japanther‘s early songs, but in a longer form, so you get to spend more time on the trigger. Freind’s “big sky long road” dream paths take me back to what I think of as God’s Country: the rivers and knolls of the hilly country just a poke west off State Highway 290 out of Austin.
For Greenpointers seeking more of a classic jam band sound, The Original Peaches’ original compositions bring a fresh approach to the genre. Their show will please anyone getting geared up for the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well shows this summer. Check out this rollicking performance of “She Can’t Sleep” from their Bitter End show this month. The Original Peaches share a bill with the fine modern folk songwriter Theo Kandel at the Living Room (134 Metropolitan Ave.) on Saturday, starting at 4 pm.
If your favorite jam band is Phish, you might like Solid Goold, playing Pete’s Candy Store (709 Lorimer St.) on Sunday at 11 pm. Their prog-pop repertoire starts with bouncing, joyful melodies, but winds out in extended jams and explorations.
I hope you get to enjoy one of the long, strange journeys that our featured bands provide this weekend. As the saying goes, sometimes you need to get lost to find yourself. Even if that goal proves too ambitious, it’s always a pleasure to break it on down to the live performance of a strong long jam.