Although the artist known as Jandek has emerged some from his decades-long shroud of mystery since performing publicly for the first time in 2004 at a Scottish music festival, an appearance by the reclusive outsider-musician still entails a high degree of secrecy – and excitement.
The five musicians tasked with backing the Houston experimental folk artist – who has released over 60 inscrutable homemade albums since 1978 on his own Corwood Industries label – at the Flywheel in Easthampton, Massachusetts, didn’t meet Jandek until an hour-and-a-half-long rehearsal on the day of the show.
Their identities had been kept strictly under wraps – even representatives of the Flywheel arts collective didn’t know who would be appearing onstage – fueling speculation that perhaps one of western Massachusetts’ prominent indie rockers (Thurston, Kim, J?) would be there.
Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, for instance, a resident of nearby Northampton, had played with Jandek at a one-off gig in Portland, Oregon, last year. But Moore was finishing up a West Coast solo tour and was nowhere to be seen in the fairly crowded Flywheel by show time.
Instead, Jandek tapped two New York City musicians – vocalist Betsy Nichols and pedal steel guitarist Marc Orleans of freeform psych outfit Sunburned Hand of the Man – and three Pioneer Valley artists (banjoist Tony Pasquarosa, fiddle player Zac Johnson and drummer Mark Hanson of ‘80s indie group Supreme Dicks) as his collaborators on this night.
Jandek’s relatively rare live appearances to date have explored an array of musical idioms, from free jazz to funk to amped-up rock, but the Flywheel show was “Jandek goes country” all the way. Or at least, elements of traditional country, bluegrass and western swing served as departure points for loosely structured “songs” or tone poems based around Jandek’s lyrics.
The man himself was dressed head to toe in black – from shoes to fedora – his thin frame nearly skeletal and his reddish-gray hair shorn close to his head. He played a jet-black fretless bass, and harmonica toward night’s-end, saying nothing to the rapt audience but tapping his feet in perfect time to the rhythm and appearing to enjoy his on-the-fly synergy with the band.
His duets with Nichols – who was wearing a turquoise blue dress – were the centerpiece of the show, both turning pages on a music stand to sing (or in Jandek’s case eerily intone) the words to a romantic cycle of love, loss, alcohol abuse and constant self-reflection, set amid a warbled, delayed-speed improvisational honky-tonk shuffle.
“I’ll just stay this way feeling like I do for you. If you’re not always there, I’ll be waiting for you,” the enigmatic artist – with an intriguing tenderness – sang.
So little is known about the man who appears as Jandek, it’s tempting to assume his lyrics are autobiographical. But it did sound as if he were recounting the love of a lifetime – one soured so heartbreakingly that he needed to take to the stage of the Flywheel to exorcise those demons.
Review by Kirsten Ferguson
Photographs by Matt Mac Haffie