Accounts of Eugene Chadbourne’s music usually state in one way or another that it’s impossible to predict what will happen during his shows. While this is indeed noteworthy in a calculating world, it’s not sufficient to explain what has kept people coming to those shows for well over thirty years now and made Chadbourne into something of an avant-garde cult figure. So, at the risk of taking all the fun out of this thing, let’s try to analyze it.
It’s true that an unusually wide swath of the musical universe seems to be within Chadbourne’s grasp. Playing guitar, and sometimes a banjo or other stringed instrument, he can rock out or participate in an extended avant-jazz improvisation, and he can sing, in a plain voice you either love or can’t stand, straight country, rockabilly, psychobilly, blues, and ska-punk. He’s performed—after a fashion—Bach’s Sonata and Partita no. 1 for solo violin on a five-string banjo. He writes protest folk, grotesque satires, freeform rock and roll . . . The list goes on and on. He can cover almost anything and make it into something new; one example in fairly common circulation is a version of the rockabilly classic “Train Kept a-Rollin’,” done with the Dutch jazz drummer Han Bennink and perched right between rockabilly and total jazz assault. Chadbourne has a large assortment of collaborators; as utterly idiosyncratic as his music may be, he seems to be able to sit in with musicians of many kinds. If he has a personal trademark, it’s a pair of homemade instruments, an electric lawn rake and an electric birdcage, that he sometimes brings to shows.
But what holds all this together? Chadbourne is no virtuoso. His efforts are all lo-fi, low-tech, and pretty much underground primitive. But there’s genius in what he does. Progressive musicians in the third quarter of the twentieth century, when Chadbourne came of age, pursued several paths toward transcendence, paths that went by the names of free jazz, experimental rock, folk. Somehow, instead of cycling through these as so many other musicians did, Chadbourne just threw them into his personal pool of experiences and continued to draw on them all and mix them together. A later influence on Chadbourne, and a heavy collaborator, was the unclassifiable New York jazz eclectic John Zorn, who showed the way toward a music in which the strands of the musical universe itself could be lines in an ongoing project of free improvisation. By grounding that idea in the common coin of country music and in the personal conviction of left-wing politics, Chadbourne brought it back down to earth.
It’s all something to think about, and to enjoy, for humor, sometimes obscene, is a significant part of the deal, and the atmosphere at a live Chadbourne concert is more rock than jazz. The best guess you can make about what will happen during Chadbourne’s solo show at Kerrytown Concert House on Thursday, November 13, is that there will be a hugely diverse of group of musical numbers, probably falling under a general theme that may be political. Expect for sure that this free show will be hard to get into; WCBN, the U-M’s intrepid student-community freeform radio station, has hosted free programs of avant-garde music in much larger venues, like the U-M Museum of Art, and there hasn’t been a vacant seat in the house.