12 September 2010

CONCERT REVIEW: Prester John at the NJ Proghouse 10 September 2010

It took me better than a week to figure out who Shawn Persinger was (even though I knew I knew his name), and had someone not commented on the blog about the recent shows, I probably would not have figured it out till I got to Rockn’ Joe on Friday night, 10 September 2010.

Now that I’ve led off that way, let me explain.

Back in the mid-1990’s there was a band on Cuneiform Records called Boud Deun. The name rhymes with ‘rude European’ (but preferably, apparently, not ‘nude peon’), and they released two albums, plus a live set recorded at Orion Sound Studios, before going their separate ways in 1998. I had 2 studio albums (The Stolen Bicycle and Astronomy Made Easy), never had a chance to get the live album before it went out of print itself, and both studio albums went their separate ways from me quite some time ago, sadly (and with the debut out of print, unlikely that I’ll ever have them both again…at least in physical format…but more about that later). For me, they’re one of the great and sadly unknown American prog bands of their era.

Shawn Persinger was one of the members of Boud Deun. Thus endeth the history lesson. For now.


Friday night Shawn Persinger appeared at the NJ Proghouse with mandolinist David Miller in their duo Prester John. In this configuration, Persinger plays acoustic guitar, and by now I am guessing that you’re thinking ‘Acoustic guitar and mandolin? Gaah, this isn’t prog, this is…bluegrass!’ And if you’re thinking that, I want you do so something for me.

  1. First, extend your right hand so it’s out in front of you. Got it?
  2. OK, good. Now, take your left hand and extend it so it’s about 8 inches or so above your right.
  3. Now, slap yourself.
  4. Done? Now listen:

Prog is NOT about 15 minute long songs in 7/4. It is NOT about mellotrons and violins and flutes and racks of keyboards and triple neck guitars. It is NOT about costumes or lyrics about marmots coming out of the sky and then standing there. It’s about interesting music that does something different. That’s my definition of prog, and I’m sticking to it. And interesting music that does something different is everything Shawn Persinger and Prester John is about. You get odd tunings, loops a plenty, loads of angular playing, immense walls of sound and colour, dashes of humour and darkness, unison lines up the wazoo, and enough quirks to open up your own quirk gift shop. Now tell me that doesn’t sound like prog. Because it sure does to me. Who cares what it’s played on?

Ahem. Moving on.

I got to the venue early, hung out with Jim Robinson and Alan and Amy Benjamin for a bit, and watched Persinger and Miller set up. I got to hear their soundcheck, and it was honestly a fun little blast to sing along with them as they played a few standards. After the soundcheck I walked over, introduced myself to Shawn, and asked permission to a) shoot photos of the show, and b) to get a shot of the setlist in the event that I couldn’t stay for both sets (and because my memory is crap and I’d not remember everything played). He generously allowed both. You’ll see the set list below. Mostly, I think you can ignore it…there were enough deviations that I am sure it’s far from accurate. But it gives an idea of what they did.

The first set was a maelstrom, and I am sure I laughed more during it than I have during most any concert I have been to in a long time. Persinger and Miller have a great rapport on stage with each other, and genuinely seem to love the stuff they do and working with each other. Equally, Persinger does a great job getting the audience involved, whether it’s talking, joking, starting a story and then stopping it saying it’s too boring or not interesting enough…there’s an equal amount of smiles coming from the stage and the audience both. There were highlights I definitely recall from that first set…a stomping cover of Rush’s ‘Spirit of Radio’ was one, the three miniatures called ‘Silhouettes’ (with one each dedicated to Janet Feder, Mike Sary of French TV and Dave Kerman of Thinking Plague/Aranis/Present/too many other bands to name) was another. In fact, the last of the three was particularly humourous, as Persinger saying that it was not at all like Dave Kerman ‘because this one ritards’ (Lesson #2 for the non-musically trained…a ritard or ritardando is a gradual slowing of a piece as it progresses). Those three short pieces were complex, amazing to hear, and both Miller and Persinger had to play them off scores.

That first set also offered up the first Boud Deun tune of the night, a stunning version of ‘Saints.’ I didn’t expect any BD material to be played, to be honest (and further honesty…when I saw BD cover listed on the setlist, I started wracking my brain to figure out what Bob Drake album the songs were from), and the arrangement for guitar and mandolin was wonderfully done. The other huge highlight actually closed out the first set. Persinger sent Miller to the audience, telling us that if both of them where up there our heads would explode. I was sure it was hyperbole, but ‘Domesticated’ possibly lived up to that warning, building throughout the performance, with intense, occasionally almost screamed vocals, and extensive use of live looping to build huge sheets of sound, to the point where I was almost sure that we were moving into metal territory.

After that, Persinger and Miller needed a break. Hell, I think we needed a break. I stepped outside for 10 minutes or so while people mulled about catching their breaths.

The second set, as I look at it, offered a lot of deviation from what was written too, at least in terms of order if nothing else. We opened up with another Persinger solo track, the new ‘First Date,’ which he begged three teen-aged girls who had witnessed the first set from a corner near the back of the restaurant to stay for, but they walked out before his first note. His comment ‘Well, maybe they’re not fans of subtext’ as they walked out got a nice laugh. The song itself carried on in style somewhat from ‘Domesticated,’ albeit with a little less intensity and a little less emphasis on looping.

At this point things get a little fuzzy for me setlist wise. I know that Persinger and Miller did another great rendition of a Doud Deun piece (‘Making Circles’) featuring subtle use of looped rhythm guitar tracks and loads of lyrical and tasty solos from both musicians. There was a request from the audience for ‘In the Court of the Crimson King,’ which they took to mean the lead track from the album of the same name, which happened to be on the setlist for the night anyway. Now, if you think that ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ can’t possibly translate to acoustic guitar and mandolin, all I can say is this…there’s about 30 people who can state without reservation that you’re dead wrong. It was intense in a totally different way, and as for the main riff…you know, the one everyone knows…when Persinger hit those pinched notes leading into the vocal sections, you’d be hard pressed to believe they weren’t electric.

There was also an amazingly spacey instrumental called ‘Favored Color of Light’ that took their sound in unexpected directions. About the only thing it was missing was a violin to really classify as space rock…thrumming bass line loops, echoed and held single guitar notes and runs, and loads of ambience and space really set this piece apart. Definitely one of the highlights for me overall. Add in the wistful ‘Fireman’s Drive-Inn’ and a cool number called ‘Duet for Piano And Violin No. 1’ (please note…it’s a trio, and there’s no piano or violin, and two people play it), and top it off with an honest to goodness bluegrass traditional tune (whose name sadly escapes me and I’ll hope that someone chimes in to fill in that hole), and you have a night of music that covers more range and styles than most multi-band festivals can. And it’s just two guys, some pedals, an acoustic guitar and mandolin.

Shawn and David have a bunch of upcoming dates across the east coast and mid-Atlantic area in the coming months (I'll be posting dates and links later); I’d highly encourage you to check them out. Don’t be like the people who chickened out going to the show because there was no way an acoustic duo with mandolin could possibly be prog…because if you are, you’ll miss out on some of the most amazing playing you will ever get the chance to see, from two musicians who know their instruments inside and out and can bend them to their musical will at the slightest whim.

Oh! One last bit that I referenced above…according to Persinger, both
Astronomy Made Easy and A General Observation will be available on iTunes this year (The Stolen Bicycle already is, but sadly Fiction and Several Days is not). So, if you never got a chance to pick up these essential American prog/fusion albums, here’s your chance!


Assaf Vestin said...

Great show review! I have Boud Deun and the several French TV albums that Prester is on, but I need to get these Prester John albums yet, I liked the samples I heard.

And great paragraph on what Prog is and is not, really funny :-)

Anonymous said...

Another way to describe prog is progressive music, like getting better each CD, at least that's how Thomas Bodin described it to me once ...
But your description, Bill, is better I think ... covers more ground!