75 Dollar Bill – Cafe Oto, Hackney, London, 19 December 2019

One of the joys of living in London is having so many well run and, as importantly, well attended small venues.

6D430632-6766-470C-9C6A-27577567D36C.jpeg
A peek into Cafe Oto with 75 Dollar Bill setting up in the background

Cafe Oto is a performance space just around the corner from Dalston overground station. It’s a well established local Hackney institution – craft beer and cobbled together junk shop seating. Tucked in the corner are their racks of limited press books and avant-garde vinyl. The venue is very much Wire Magazine approved and I’m here for a matinee performance of the recipients of the 2019 Album of the Year award.IWasReal_75DollarBill.jpg

The record in question is I Was Real by 75 Dollar Bill. Consisting of guitarist Che Chen and percussionist Rick Brown, it’s their 3rd LP and introduces a wider palette of musicians than previous recordings. For the Cafe Oto gig, they were supplemented by the stand-up bass of Andrew Lafkas. Che generally uses electric guitars in an open tuning with a nice level of distortion. His frets though are at non-standard positions to allow the instrument to be played microtonally.

Unknown.jpeg

What is microtonality? If you want the most common example that western music listeners would be familiar with, think about the bent guitar note in the blues, as played by Stevie Ray Vaughan and BB King. It’s the note that sits between the two standard notes. It’s not quite one and certainly the other. A microtonal guitar has the frets positioned at these intervals so that the manual bending to achieve these tones isn‘t needed. You just put your fingers where you want the blue note to be and the sound is a more accurate representation of that note rather than the bent approximation. 

Rick’s chosen instrument is a plywood tea-chest which he sits on whilst beating the sides a la Maureen Tucker. At his feet is a tiny cymbal which provides a hi-hat at those times when a little embellishment is needed to the beating heart of 75 Dollar Bill. All three musicians use a variety of small bells from time to time and Rick has the odd Pharoah Sanders moment with a homemade one-note horn. A bit of bowing on Lafkas’ bass adds to the textures.

75-dollar-bill.jpg
Rick Brown and Che Chen

What we end up with as an instrumental gumbo that has its heart in a variety of places. Che pedals the lower strings of his guitar in a manner in keeping with the delta blues of John Lee Hooker. The higher strings are played in the style of the Malian music of Africa, melodies played in clusters of repetitive notes, bringing to mind the great Ali Farke Toure. I was lucky enough to see Farke Toure play at the Royal Festival Hall after his collaboration with the wonderful Talking Timbuktu was released and got the same sense of emotional hypnosis with 75 Dollar Bill. Chen’s microtonal guitar takes us into Asia and the Middle East too.

The whole package hits in the head, the heart and the hips. There’s “a what are they doing now?” quizzical element combined with a “don’t care because my feet are stomping” response. The songs are extended but never dull. As Bill Meyer of The Wire magazine says:

75 Dollar Bill can play in your kitchen, but they can also lead a second line funeral procession down your street

The intimacy of the venue helped. When the songs are relatively long and based around creating a groove, it’s the almost imperceptible visual cues that reinforce that this is three musicians bouncing and feeding off of each other. When do you change from that sustained chord being picked? When does the song benefit from the bowed bass mirroring the droning horn? How long should the harmonics that are being plucked on the guitar be matched by the same technique on the bass?

IMG_2245
When the music’s over

When should the song end?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

The Fall in Fives

All the Fall songs, five at a time.

#KeepingItPeel

Commemorating the life of John Peel

Kit Geek

Talking Football Kits from the past, the present and the future.

The Bobsphere

Ramblings on Books, Music and Films

Songs from the Black Iron Prison

A Metaphysical Exploration of the World of the Demiurge. Questions? kingofmercia@gmail.com

Headphone Commute

honest words on honest music

Wolves Molinews

Your place for everything Wolves

The Old Noise

"This old noise?" she demurred.

The Sunday Dinner Diaries

On the Gravy Trail

Pushing Ahead of the Dame

David Bowie, song by song

Punk Rock Reviews

Reviewing Music

Every record tells a story

A Blog About Music, Vinyl, More Music and (Sometimes) Music...

WORDS AND MUSIC

News, views and reviews on hi-fi and beyond, by Andrew Everard

downatthecrossroads

Where the blues and faith meet

blueblueneonglow.wordpress.com/

wrapped like candy, writing about music

The Fall in Fives

All the Fall songs, five at a time.

#KeepingItPeel

Commemorating the life of John Peel

Kit Geek

Talking Football Kits from the past, the present and the future.

The Bobsphere

Ramblings on Books, Music and Films

Songs from the Black Iron Prison

A Metaphysical Exploration of the World of the Demiurge. Questions? kingofmercia@gmail.com

Headphone Commute

honest words on honest music

Wolves Molinews

Your place for everything Wolves

The Old Noise

"This old noise?" she demurred.

The Sunday Dinner Diaries

On the Gravy Trail

Pushing Ahead of the Dame

David Bowie, song by song

Punk Rock Reviews

Reviewing Music

Every record tells a story

A Blog About Music, Vinyl, More Music and (Sometimes) Music...

WORDS AND MUSIC

News, views and reviews on hi-fi and beyond, by Andrew Everard

downatthecrossroads

Where the blues and faith meet

blueblueneonglow.wordpress.com/

wrapped like candy, writing about music

%d bloggers like this: