Deep Noir with Ben Von Wildenhaus
Ben Von Wildenhaus, connoisseur of noir guitar, played Zebulon last night. It was a show worthy of Jim Campilongo, or Duke Levine, or Marc Ribot, all guitarists that Von Wildenhaus resembles. But while he pulls ideas from the depths of a seemingly bottomless pit of every lurid trick in the cinematic guitar playbook, his style is completely original. His website sardonically mentions from time to time that he plays “with a professional band;” last night that professional band was the usual effects (delay and a swollen river of reverb) plus a couple of loop pedals and what looked like a shortwave radio that he’d dial for drones, or for weirdly keening Dr. Dre-style pitches. Slowly building from a forlorn, forsakenly spacious wee-hours theme, from that point Von Wildenhaus would usually lay down a simple two or four-note bassline and then take his time filling in the blanks.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the show was that he didn’t simply add layers of melody until the loop was complete, as Jon Brion will do – there always seemed to be all kinds of improvisation going on. Once in awhile he’d take what seemed a split-second pause to pedal in or simply play a couple bars of a new riff after he’d had enough of the old one. He’d get the twangy effect of a tremolo bar by bending the neck of his Gibson SG ever so slightly, Campilongo style; when he wailed up and down on the strings, it wasn’t for a savage chord-chopping effect but for a flurry or a smear of chromatic morbidness. For the most part, he hung around the lowest, most resonant notes on the guitar, places where so many players fear to tread. This was the slow, Lynchian, angst-ridden set, populated with haunted spaghetti western vistas, rain-drenched cityscapes and sepulchral mariachi overtones in lieu of manic depressive, Mingus-esque chase scenes. Von Wildenhaus found the noir lurking at the surface of a popular Ethiopian riff that a million funk bands have appropriated but never take anywhere near that level of menace, took his time with a morose Middle Eastern passage that lurched apprehensively into a biting, stop-time tango in 7/8 and then an even murkier, echoey theme that sounded like 9/4 or could have been considerably more complicated. The unexpected acidity of one particular gypsy-infused turnaround echoed another darkly individualistic player, Jack Martin of the Dimestore Dance Band, who were scheduled to headline as a two-piece.
What’s more is that Von Wildenhaus got the crowd to shut up. While there were a lot of fans in the house, some obviously weren’t, including one particular ditz who went on and on about how her BBFFF-du-jour’s unsteady chair was “finicky” – she couldn’t come up with the right word, but, you know, what-evvvv. That those people stayed more or less silenced until the end bears witness to the haunting power of the music. What about Dimestore? For the 99%, everyone’s a slave to the trains and it was getting late. Looking forward to the next one, guys, hopefully with the full band.