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