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Music Production: The Stem Cell Liberation Front
10/19/2002 The Stem Cell Liberation Front: Live at Roboto Project

Announcement
Shaping up to be a busy fall, here. The Stem Cell Liberation Front is back in the struggle after taking the summer off...and this is no warm-up gig; it's serious business. We've been on a regular rehearsal schedule, we've beefed up the equipment list, and we're ready to rock, or what'll pass for it in the SCLF world.

This time we're part of The Big Show, another exciting production of Mr. Funky. This The Roboto Project show is guaranteed to be big in one way or another. There will, of course, be a performance by Mr. & Mr$ Funky and Marty to set you up with the rock action. Also appearing will be Turn Pale from...somewhere in the Midwest. You will be rocked. Local high school band The Hopeless Romantics will attempt to charm you out of your pants, and there will be dramatic interludes by Monday Talk-Talk impresario Dave Mansueto tying the whole thing together. The keyword, my friends, is rock.

Not only that, but Ryan and I are planning a culmination of our set that is worthy of the magnitude of this event, quite possibly including a special guest. Note that we're going on first, at 7:30, so those of you with jobs in the demimonde may still be able to see us.

You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll spend $4. So come on out for a big evening.

Report
A less than optimal evening, on more than a few fronts. Reports from other observers were notably positive, but the gaps were quite clear to us. On the other hand, it was a valuable learning experience for the show coming up on November 2.

The issues began at the rehearsal on Thursday the 17th--I noticed that the nut had come off of the output jack on my main performing guitar. This wouldn't be a big deal, except that the threads on the jack had somehow become stripped over the last four years of use. No big deal either, except this particular guitar (a 60s Kalamazoo--Gibson's student model--two-pickup Mustang copy) requires the removal of the bridge/tailpiece before the pickguard can be removed. All right, I'd been intending to put on new strings anyway. For Friday's rehearsal, I played my Univox Hi-Flyer, which itself needed new strings, and I decided to do them both at the same time.

I didn't have a chance to do the Kalamazoo repair until Saturday afternoon. It went smoothly, but of course by the time I was done, the bridge was not at the exact same height it had been before, which put off the guitar's intonation. I adjusted it, but the new strings hadn't settled in (and the neck hadn't yet stabilized after being detensioned), so the intonation was kind of a moving target. Restringing the Univox resulted in fret buzz for the same reason. Given the now-buzzy Univox or the non-buzzy and sturdier Kalamazoo, I went with the K'zoo for the night's performance. I'd also wanted to burn a few more SCLF mini-CDs to sell at the show, which meant printing the cover again. And I'd wanted to consolidate the best samples I've been using for the SCLF into one BackToBasics setup for easy access. Quite a lengthy punchlist for my afternoon before the show, and I got pressed for time.

I started rolling at 6:45, the exact time I probably should have been at the venue, given an announced 7:30 start time. Arriving at Roboto (via a more-direct back way that bypassed Penn Avenue), I found the place looking distinctly non-lively, and didn't see any familiar vehicles. Looking in the door revealed Roboto member Dave, who had opened the place up and who would run the PA. I was the first performer to show. All righty; I loaded in and started setting up.

Mr. & Mr$ Funky and Marty arrived next, as did members of Turn Pale. We agreed that the Funkies could set up and we'd set up in front of them; I continued to get my rig together, and was testing it at about the time Ryan and Tony arrived. I was only getting intermittent signal from the guitar, and immediately assumed that I'd messed up the jack repair in some way, but I ultimately I found that--surprise--it was a cable. Whew.

I turned my attention to getting my sample setup together. I did after a bit of a hectic session, but it wasn't going to be easy to know the positions of any of the samples by memory. Time rolled on, other people were setting up, Dave Mansueto was setting up his theatrical devices, and an audience had filed in. And Ryan's kit was in only a partial state of assembly--it's grown quite large in recent weeks, which is great for expanding our sonic palette...but takes a lot longer to put up and adjust. There wasn't much we could do at that point other than soldier on as best we could.

I tuned to A440, Mr$ Funky telling me that I should lose the pretense as I wouldn't be playing tonally anyway--little did she know what we'd intended. I set up an atmospheric sample loop and a sparse half-speed guitar loop, which Dave said he liked, so I left it going. The house lights came down, and Mr. Funky told me that Dave would be starting his dramatic piece soon. It would last about two minutes, and then our set would start. To keep the last band from having a too-short set because of the 11:00 performance curfew, he wanted us to be finshed by 8:25--it was then 7:48. I told Ryan I'd just start playing when Dave was done with his theatrical bit, and then he could join in when his kit was together.

Dave's dramatic bit was fascinating--it was a scifi/war drama in reverse, and his first (last) scene was an urgent monologue taking place on another planet. I was pleased that my ambient loop contributed an atmosphere of desolate menace, and I was able to come in on some siren-like sounds, recalling the sirens mentioned in the monologue. What I should have done was kept that going for a while, but I stopped, introduced us, and started with a dense ring modulator improv loosely based on the "Uh..." and "Stem cells" loops. Listening back to it, it does have its moments, including the clanks of the drum kit assembly. Once Ryan was ready (about five minutes into it), we segued into something like the dissonant funky piece we'd worked up in rehearsal the previous week, "Martian on Date." (It's on the mini CD single.)

We didn't quite find a groove, however. Ryan definitely played with power, and we undoubtedly made an impression--and listening back to it, it's better than I thought at the time--but it didn't lock into the funk groove we hit in rehearsal. Ryan later mentioned that the key problem here boiled down to not having enough time to adjust the kit, as well as not having that essential time before the set to step back and get into the playing frame of mind. Understandable and a valuable point to remember for next time. (Much like our last show in May, when I learned that I can't rehearse on a performance day, or I'll get played out by show time.) Still, as I listen to it now, we were the only ones who knew at this point that the audience wasn't getting the show it could have gotten.

What momentum we'd built up got completely dissipated when we tried to do "Blast," the lead-off tune on the single. It's a very rock-oriented tune, and would work best just slamming right into it. But this is where my own lack of planning hurt us: just as I hit the first chord, I could tell I was way out of tune. And I spent about three minutes tuning, about the most boring thing you could ever put an audience through. (I should have joked that I was doing my Television impersonation.) Eventually I just said the hell with it and played the tune. Ryan loosened up considerably and really played it, but it was hard for me to get into it as much as I'd like to with the tuning issue. It wasn't brutally out of tune, but it wasn't exactly in, either; it was more like an extremely wide chorus effect on the edge of slow, seasick vibrato. But we got through it.

Listening to the recording now, I really dislike my interaction with the audience. I was obviously uncomfortable, and talked way too much as a result. Another quick dense dissonant number followed, during which I asked our guest Tony Yu (who'd be joining us on violin) to bow Ryan's cymbals. As Tony was already up, that was a good segue into our set-closer.

Early on, Ryan and I had agreed that covering a pop or rock tune would be a good disorienting thing with which to end a set. He'd suggested U2's "Love Is Blindness," with which I wasn't familiar. At first I wasn't sure what to make of it--it seemed cooler to do something audiences might not know, but on further thought, what could be less predictable or less "indie rock" than covering U2? Its sheer unfashionability makes it that much cooler. Plus it's not one of their anthemic songs; it's more of a torch song, which makes it more interesting to me. So we've been chipping away at it in rehearsal, and it's been getting better. We'd been trying to figure out who should sing it, as the drum parts are somewhat complex and make it difficult for Ryan to do both, but I'd been coming down with a cold. We did some a double lead vocals in rehearsal, but I copped out when I felt that my playing was thrown off. So Ryan pulled vocal duty as well tonight.

Sadly, again I dissolved any of the useful tension built up when I resumed my nervous patter between songs. Tony started off with a solo violin intro, which should have been followed by our bass/click sample. We'd had one prepared for the PA, and another an octave higher for going through my guitar amp at practice. I hit the lower bass track, and...it was delayed (sleeping hard disk) and inaudible due to being too low for the PA. So we stopped and started again with the higher bass track. I should, of course, have tested this before we went on.

Once we were finally underway, things went pretty well. Ryan's vocals sounded somewhat different from the rehearsals, a bit overreaching in places, to my ear now. The high amp volume may have had something to with it, as well as a desire to put the song over more powerfully given all our previous mishaps. Still a couple snags dogged us--I would have preferred that the bass line carry through one more verse, the violin was not as audible as we would have liked, and Ryan came in early on the vocal after the first solo. But these were minor compared to how we all played for the second solo. By this time I was in tune and the Kalamazoo through my Alamo Montclair Reverb (on 9) sounded very nice, with good breakup--I very possibly could have done without my Graphic Fuzz for distortion. But the inspiration had hit. Finally.

The audience seemed to dig it. At our Friday night rehearsal, I broke into a surf version of the song, and we agreed that if there was enough applause after the straighter cover, we should do a two-minute version of "Surf Is Blindness." There was enough applause, and although it was a bit rough, it also seemed to be a crowd pleaser. My tone was really on by this point...and then it was over.

While I pushed the new SCLF single rather hard, the audience response (as consumers, anyway) was pretty much nonexistent. Nonetheless, one of Ryan's friends showed up, and was Customer #1 of the single. At her request, we even autographed it! The evening was saved.

Dave did another backward installment of his drama, and Mr. & Mr$ Funky came on, also to be hit with bad-gig karma. Their set was enjoyable as usual, but there were broken strings and dropped picks that impeded the flow, most notably in (perhaps appropriately) "Sorry." I dug 'em, and I could definitely feel for them at those vulnerable moments.

Another installment of the drama was followed by the gentlemen of Turn Pale, an act from Bloomington, Indiana. They'd presciently asked not to play last, as they said the local audience would stay for the local band(s)--and they were right. Easily the tightest set of the evening, they were definitely worth watching. If I had to choose points of comparison, it'd be the Birthday Party, with some Pere Ubu, Joy Division, and even a U2 moment here and there. Very nice guys. The singer's heading back out after this tour for a solo tour, a kind of Leonard Cohen-meets-electronics thing under the name Drekka.

The last installment of the drama preceded the first ever set by local highschoolers The Hopeless Romantics, who were much more into a pop thing. Their lead guitarist is a student of Mr. Funky's. He was playing electric lead; the main singer/rhythm guitarist played an acoustic with a soundhole pickup, and they had a drummer as well. The tuning wasn't very close, and they could drift in and out of time, but I nonetheless was thoroughly entertained by their set. The songs are promising, and they just need to get a bunch more playing under their belts. Regrettably, they covered Steve Miller for their set closer, but it didn't spoil my evening. In any event, they're worth keeping an eye out for. At their request, I recorded their set on MiniDisc, and passed the disc on to them.

We hung out a bit during load-out, and then the SCLF contingent repaired to Kelly's bar and grill in East Liberty for debriefing, drinks, and a late dinner. Overall, a useful warm-up date--no one on our lists showed up (apart from players), and we know what allowances to make for the 2nd. Another factor in our favor will be that the Quiet Storm will be open early enough that we can give ourselves plenty of setup time. And we're going to keep rehearsing in the meantime. I think we can safely say that the organization is getting steadily smarter, and we'll be storing up more surprises to spring on the audiences.

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