The first set in the third night of the Marc Ribot residency was the first solo performance that we saw, entitled simply: Improvisations to 8mm film. It being the Stone, and it being Marc Ribot, the film projection was about as DIY as you can get – it was propped up on cinder blocks and I saw a couple rolls of duct tape hanging around, and the whole thing was covered in an old rug and projected on a sheet hanging on a brick wall. And he had gotten his daughter to be the projectionist – I felt a certain kinship there, as I’ve been troubleshooting my father’s stereos, computers, iPods, digital cameras, remote controls, etc. etc. for over 20 years now. After seeing how much trouble the 8mm projector was to run, I have great respect for her – and I’m also glad my dad only ever did slide-shows, which are a lot simpler 😉 When everything was finally up and running, he started the show by jokingly announcing that “the theme of tonight’s performance is failed technology.” Luckily, you don’t need too much technology to play a guitar.
We ended up seeing, if memory serves me correctly, five short films. (Actually, I’m pretty sure there were six and I’m completely spacing on one, so … let’s just go with five.) I’m not sure if they were all silent films originally or if they just screened them without sound, but they were all more or less understandable without sound, at any rate. The first one was called Dr. Cyclops, and it involved some sort of mad scientist figure and a lot of tiny humans running around. I have to admit I didn’t quite figure out the plot of that one, but it gave a lot of opportunities for dramatic music and surprises. He used an electric guitar, and improvised a very bold soundtrack to the film – loud, with a raw sound and a few extended techniques thrown in (well, it wouldn’t be a Ribot concert without a few extended techniques…). After a longish wait for the show to start, I liked kicking it off with a nice big sound, nothing held back.
The second film was a vampire film (I think the title was “The Return of Dracula”) which, again, was full of opportunities for dark and dramatic accompaniment. I particularly remember the bit when they were hammering the stake into the monster’s heart and the blood gushing out (thankfully in black and white). He switched to an acoustic guitar for this one, with a more delicate sound especially in the first part, becoming more aggressive and dark as the film progressed and more vampire-y things started happening.
The next one was referred to as “Mouse Movies,” although I’m not sure if that was the official title or not. They had a lot of trouble getting this one to work, and in the end we were only able to see part of it before it apparently melted in the projector. Mr. Ribot kindly told us the rest of the story from memory so we wouldn’t be left with a cliffhanger. It was a cartoon about a bunch of mice (living in houses/cities) who were being terrified by a big mean cat. The mouse citizens decided to band together into a union and organize against the cat. The film was destroyed just as they had decided to unionize, which I guess could be seen as some sort of allegory for our current political climate.
The next film was a Popeye cartoon which involved bullfighting, and he did a fun, fast-paced acoustic guitar soundtrack occasionally incorporating elements of the Popeye theme song; it felt very appropriate for the film – maybe my favorite marriage of improvisation and film of the night.
Whenever there were ‘technical difficulties’ with the finicky 8mm projector and finicky 8mm reels, they would switch the stage lights on for a couple of minutes and Ribot would play us a tune. He was having a good night, and pretty much all of them were amazing little musical vignettes, like this one:
While I was of course curious about the films we didn’t get to see because of time constraints/technical issues (none of the Super 8 films were shown because they couldn’t get the second projector to work at all), the little intermissions were so beautiful that I’m kind of glad it worked out the way it did. We got a nice balance of dramatic film improvisations and sweet little musical interludes. And everyone was so laid back about it – probably 90% of the performers in the world would have been stressing out if their movies didn’t work during their film improvisation set, but the audience was patient, the performer and technical support staff were relaxed, and somehow you ended up feeling like everything was just the way it should be. I think fans of his music are, by nature, people who don’t like things to be all shiny and neat – we like our live music experience to have character; slightly dented, with some paint worn off, and maybe rattling a little. (Or served up on cinder blocks and with a squeaky volume pedal, in this case…)
When choosing the last film, they checked their boxes for the remaining unscreened 8mm films, which included “Simba – Killer Lion,” “Chimpy the Aviator,” and “Man Eating a Sandwich.” Ribot rejected all of those (one for “political reasons” which went unexplained) and opted for a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, using his Fender Jaguar to riff on the classic Woody laugh from the cartoons you might remember from your childhood. Marc Ribot doing badass riffs on Woody Woodpecker is definitely being filed under “things I never knew I needed to hear.” This was one of my favorite soundtracks of the night, at times powerful and almost triumphant; at times humorous; always dynamic. Great stuff.
I really liked the improvisational sets we’ve been seeing, and some of them I would even call outstanding, but I have to say the 8mm improvisation set was the most fun I’ve had so far during the residency. One of those shows where you walk away feeling like you’ve just witnessed something that will never happen again (at least not in the same way). And that’s really part of the appeal of live music… the studio album sounds the same every time, but the live show is, at its best, a completely unique experience that only happens once.