Getting Pickled with Vivian Li

by delarue

It feels kind of weird to sit behind the drum kit, watching a concert – and not playing. But that was the only place left in a cozy recording studio packed with people who’d come to party, and it turned out to be the best seat in the house. It was hard to resist the urge to get at least a simple kick-and-hi-hat shuffle going to keep pace with the elegantly strolling bluegrass groove that Vivian Li & the Pickled Campers had launched into at GSI Studios, around the corner from FIT, Saturday night. But trying to play along would have been a mistake for obvious reasons, not the least of which is that Li loves odd meters, syncopation and unexpected, cinematic twists and turns. So much that it would have been impossible to keep up without one of the charts that the six band members were reading. That’s right, a bluegrass band reading charts.

Li has a flair for writing riffs and tunes so fresh and vibrant that they sound completely improvised. Adding to the spontaneous atmosphere the mandolinist and her inspired group – Zach Brock on violin, Ross Martin on guitar, Darren Ziller on flute, Nathan Koci on horn and accordion and Tom DiCarlo on bass – maintained throughout their roughly 45-minute set was that Li virtually never repeats herself. An endlessly lively torrent of catchy licks flew by in rapid succession: by the third song, the performance felt more like a suite, or a long, serpentine jam, than a series of individual songs. Outside of the root chords, no verse or chorus was ever remotely the same. And Li writes solos like she plays them, starting with an emphatic idea and ending with a sizzle. And she pairs off instruments: the mandolin and flute, or violin and horn, would banter and spar and intertwine, building toward a fullscale duel.

And as deeply as Li understands the idiom, her music isn’t idiomatic at all. Much as the idea of a bluegrass band with a flute and a horn might seem like a Dr. Seuss creation, she built a context where those unlikely voices sounded completely natural, with plenty of jazz and classical influence as well. Most of the material in the set was taken from the group’s debut album Growing in the Cracks (streaming at Bandcamp): Moth in a Dustpan, with its plaintive, imagistic intro and nebulous deep-space bridge; Trickster, with its stately baroque allusions; a kinetic, dancing number simply titled The Next Tune and the playfully wry closer, Lasagna Sky. They encored with a fiery blues, and the band was so amped from playing all of Li’s tunes that the one flat-out jam of the night was just as focused and purposeful as everything else on the bill. Much as Brock – who’s also a first-rate composer – is the obvious star of this band and got all the most electrifying solos, Li is generous with them: everyone in the band got plenty of time in the spotlight and made the most of it. Somewhere there’s a Hollywood film – a road movie, or a buddy movie, maybe – that’s screaming out for a score by Vivian Li.

And the opening solo set, acoustic bass guitarist Will Bollinger‘s first-ever New York show, was also fantastic. Although the music was completely different, frequently harsh and aggressive, he shares Li’s gift for writing themes that sound extemporaneous. His technique was spectacular, with pull-offs, harmonics, lots of rumbling chords and a little tapping, slapping his downtuned low string for a drone effect while fingerpicking the other three. Often he’d work a raga-like melody against a pedaled low note, or a simple low-register riff given extra resonance by having tuned both the low and high strings to the same note an octave apart. And as fast as he played, he didn’t waste notes, and he worked the dynamics all over the place, from the very bottom to the very top of the fretboard. There were times he’d come to a stop and leave a wash of overtones to linger, then return to the gritty attack, playing through a surprisingly small, trebly, overdriven amp. Anybody who plays bass needs to see this guy: you’ll walk away with all kinds of inspiration. Just for starters, try this tuning, D#-G#-C#-D#, with a tinge of distortion and the treble turned all the way up.