The Boston Phoenix December 14 - 21, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Guitar power

Reeves Gabrels, Throttle, and Bright

by Ted Drozdowski

Reeves Gabrels, the inventive guitarist whose 12 years collaborating with David Bowie made him a star instrumentalist, moved from Boston to LA early this year. What's the big difference?

"The intellectual climate," Gabrels says without hesitation. "I miss that. Dostoyevsky's quote that there can be no deep thought without winter is illustrated by Los Angeles. Coming back to Boston and hearing one cab driver yell at another, I could tell there was creative thought behind the insult. Refreshing . . . Actually, there's enough expatriates in LA that maybe the music scene has changed. There's a sort of underground of musicians here who might almost be defined as an underground more by their intellect than by their art."

It's a safe bet that Gabrels is among them. Guitarists come no brainier or brawnier, as his latest solo album proves. Ulysses (Della Notte) (E-Magine Entertainment), originally available only as a digital download via Gabrels's Web site,, was nominated for a Yahoo Award for Best Internet Album this year. The disc remains on sale at that site and at But now it's in stores, and for that edition two new tracks have been added.

With or without those extra tracks, Ulysses (Della Notte) is the kind of guitar-powered sonic wonderland Hendrix reveled in. It's also a singer/songwriter's CD. The disc has more vocals than Gabrels's 1995 solo debut, The Sacred Squall of Now, and lyrics that ricochet between observational and confessional. Gabrels's singing falls to the sweet side of a Neil Young-like croon on numbers like "Standing," a ditty about resolve that draws its chorus from a bit of wisdom favored by his late tugboat-hand father. And there's a collaboration with Cure frontman Robert Smith, who will make his first solo album with Gabrels's help early next year. One of Gabrels's fellow ex-Bostonians, his neighbor Frank Black, appears on "Jewel" -- a garage-rock bash-up that also features Dave Grohl, Bowie, and bassist/producer Mark Plati. To be sure, the windswept geography of Gabrels's aural palette colors the entire disc, creating little tornados of guitar that swell and ebb as the songs unfold.

With sales going well, Gabrels plans to undertake his first national solo tour in 2001, after more than a decade of life in hotel rooms and on the world's stages with Bowie. (For the record, Bowie and Gabrels wrote about 70 songs together.) He plans to front the same power trio -- whom he describes as "Crazy Horse meets Band of Gypsys" -- he used for a month-long residency at actor Johnny Depp's LA hot spot the Viper Room in June.

Given the Viper Room's glamorous reputation, that sounds like a cool gig. But Gabrels makes a habit of deflating the over-hyped. "It was a great musical experience. We had great musical guests to play with: Bernard Fowler, Benmont Tench, Cat from Prince's band, Danny Saber. But the club still complained we didn't have the kind of crowds they have on Mondays. That's '80s Metal Night -- which is fine -- with a band called Camaro. But part of the shtick is they have a wet-T-shirt contest with a $350 prize."

Gabrels had to cancel a mid-November trip to Boston after coming down with the flu, but there are traces of him around town. The "Dangerous Curves" guitars-as-art exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts has one of his Steinbergers hanging on the wall. And you can hear him play on the new live CDs that bassist Michael Rivard has released from his Club d'Elf improvising collective, CDs he recorded during its long-running Lizard Lounge residency.

Daniel Coughlin and John Overstreet are fixtures of the Boston music scene. Coughlin plays drums with Come and has done distinguished work in a number of other bands, including the art-rock outfit Braindance -- where he and Overstreet met in the mid '90s. Overstreet is best known for his mixology -- as a live sound engineer at the Paradise and Middle East and on tour with Morphine and Orchestra Morphine. He's also a talented guitarist whose breadth incorporates the blowtorch approach of early Hüsker Dü as well as the fast and delicate finger picking of John Fahey and Mississippi John Hurt. Together they are Throttle, a duo whose recently released third album, Transporter (Polterchrist/Curve of the Earth), couldn't be better named.

The 11-song disc is a time machine that whips listeners through 80 years of American music -- from Appalachian ballads to one-chord-stomp blues to full-blown groove 'n' growl fiestas of modernist distortion. More so than on their previous discs, Soul Disease (Reproductive) and Throttle (Tee Pee), they blend these styles with beauty and clarity. Especially in the opening "Automatic Pilot" and "Back Porch," where growl 'n' purr dynamics bring out a previously unrevealed sweetness in Overstreet's vocals and let the hooks breathe without compromising the howling sonics or the jittery energy that have always been Throttle's trade.

By creating more space on Transporter, Coughlin and Overstreet have also given a sense of majesty to tunes like "Warfare," where a driving slide-guitar riff serves as an exposed backbone as spectacular as a whale's, and the hate-addled "Ho Tee Ho," a challenge to a cheating lover that's part backwoods Charlie Manson and -- thanks to its spare guitar riff and Coughlin's loose drumming on the verse -- part Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers. In short, this is some cool shit. And Throttle's taste in covers -- dark tales of death, retribution, and spiritual conflict like the murder ballad "Pretty Polly" and their acoustic read of the gospel "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" -- only makes it cooler.

"We got better at being able to incorporate our influences," Overstreet explains. Reasonable given the years of performing and jamming he and Coughlin have logged. Plus, the limitations of their earlier albums -- the first was done on a four-track; the second crystallized around the notion that everything had to be reproducible live as a two-piece -- were avoided this time. "We worked out all of the element of Transporter in the studio," Coughlin points out. "Not by design, but because we had booked studio time and it just came upon us. And along the way we decided to really take advantage of what the studio offered us in terms of overdubbing and using it as a creative tool."

In studio or on stage, playing in such a hard-driving rock two-piece is a considerable challenge. "We both have to be very up front," says Coughlin. "If I lay back, the power disappears."

"And I can't often solo live," Overstreet adds, "because then the song structure disappears."

So though Throttle will be in their usual MO when they play Lilli's with Quintaine Americana and Delta Clutch next Thursday, they're examining other options for the future. "Typically, we're thinking in extremes," Overstreet says. "We may try to break it down even further and do more acoustic material, or we may add a drum machine and other technology so we can play more complex parts and use things like looping on stage."

"We're lucky," Coughlin adds, "because our music lends itself to either of those options."

Options are also crucial to Bright. "Everything is about the moment," says guitarist Mark Dwinell. "It's all about spontaneity -- the way we record and play leaves us open to possibilities. Since we're not rehearsing a song's structure or form, anything can happen."

Certainly that's the feeling one gets from listening to Bright's new Full Negative (or) Breaks (Ba Da Bing!), a free-ranging collection of mostly instrumental numbers that sound as fresh and creative as the band did when they first appeared in Boston's rock clubs, nearly six years ago. And yet, a structure -- or, better, an evolutionary path -- is detectable in every piece. Sounds grow and branch, drones give way to melodies that yield to successive melodies whether the agenda is rocking ("KM Colliding") or floating ("The Fall").

Although some Bright songs have lyrics, the band's forte is chasing their muse across a shifting sonic landscape. They are in some ways torchbearers of the old-school ambient music pioneered by Fripp & Eno, weaving drums and textures of specially tuned guitars into a kind of rock-and-roll magic carpet. But their momentum and their way of fracturing hummable parts into meteorite showers of melody keep them ultra-contemporary.

Occasionally saxophone or keyboards add colors to Full Negative (or) Breaks, which was recorded as a duo -- Dwinell joined by fellow charter member and drummer Joe Labrecque. When recording began last year, they were Bright's only members, because of the usual player attrition plus complications like job changes and college. On stage Bright, who headline upstairs at the Middle East tonight (December 14), are now a four-piece again, with bassist Michael Cory and guitarist Michael Torres.

"Initially we did about two and a half days of recording, which left us with two hours of raw material to draw on," Labrecque explains. "We listened and it was obvious what had energy and what was lying flat." Then overdubbing began -- more layers of guitars plus touches of sax, Fender Rhodes, bass, and vocals. At its best, the result is high drama. Pieces like "The Spire Will Be Your Landmark" build layers of tension with chiming guitars, delayed notes, and the drum beat working at mild odds. And "Blue Lines" has the snap and command, and the blurry vocal mystery, of a refugee from New York's early-'90s No Wave scene.

What's their secret for keeping their improvised rock lively and appealing to themselves and their listeners?

"In a sense, we've been doing this so long it seems really natural," says Dwinell. "We can work inside one chord for a long time to come into all the rhythmic possibilities that really propel ideas around. Or Joe can do something on drums that slightly changes the volume or rhythm, which can trigger me to emphasize a different note of the rhythm part I'm playing. And things start morphing.

"Really it works best when we think the least about it. The most important thing is to be there in the moment."

Bright headline upstairs at the Middle East tonight, December 14, with Pulse Programming, Mark Robinson, and L'altra. Call 864-EAST. Throttle perform at Lilli's next Thursdayday, December 21, with Quintaine Americana and Delta Clutch. Call 591-1661.

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