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Second helpings
The Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, James O’Brien, and Well

Ken Field has a Jekyll & Hyde streak in his musical personality. The Cambridge-based saxist and composer is best known for his role in the art-rock outfit Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, a groundbreaking ensemble that started playing Boston clubs like the long-gone Rat and now performs at colleges and the Kennedy Center. Then there are his solo albums Pictures in Motion (SFZ) and Tokyo in F (Sublingual), which blend classical- and jazz-based composition with elements of improvisation and occasional bursts of rock audacity. That’s all fairly serious stuff. But for a decade now, Field has fed his inner party monster via another group, the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble. Clad in colorful headdresses and outfits patterned in leopard and zebra, layers of beads dangling from their necks, they’ve made occasional appearances at clubs and theaters, or they could be found marching down the middle of Massachusetts Avenue during the summertime Cambridge World’s Fair blowing horns and beating drums. Their exuberant tunes draw on the New Orleans brass-band and Mardi Gras parade traditions — seemingly the antithesis of sober composition.

"Seemingly" is the key word. Just as Field’s work with Birdsongs and elsewhere has always reserved the right to employ a musical punch line, so the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble’s debut album, Year of the Snake (Innova), tightropes between giddy Crescent City intoxication and Yankee musician’s ingenuity. Touches of klezmer and Latin music rub hips with Year of the Snake’s irrepressible funk and swinging horn lines. And the beats break open to fusillades of free-jazz sparring and dissonance. Numbers like John Scofield’s "Some Nerve" and Sun Ra’s "A Call for All Demons" tread the line perfectly, the weirdness and the wicked boogie seduction in balance. Others, like the New Orleans Mardi Gras classic "Iko Iko," go right to the heart of the Snake’s inspiration.

"I was trying to put together a party-worthy CD that also has musical legitimacy," Field says about Year of the Snake. "I didn’t want it to be just a bar-band thing." Actually, the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble have never played strict booze-and-dance fare. The group began as a one-shot that Field and fellow hornman-about-town Scott Getchell (also an occasional Phoenix cartoonist) put together for a party. Since then, Field has led the Snake’s occasional slitherings with a slightly shifting cast of players. "Initially we were playing a lot of ‘out’ improv stuff, but as the band developed, my interest in New Orleans brass band and Mardi Gras music developed." And indeed, in terms of what’s usually heard in the old French Quarter during street parades, the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble are revolutionary. Nonetheless, Field’s outfit has gotten a warm reception in New Orleans, including radio play and a place in Gambit magazine’s list of the top albums of 2003. Closer to home, the Snake will play the Center for Arts in Natick on February 26. (Visit www.revolutionarysnakeensemble.org.)

"I’m not foolish enough to think I can do this music better than the musicians in New Orleans," Field says, "but the approach I’m taking to it makes sense to me, and it’s been really affirming to get the kind of feedback I’m getting by taking it in a slightly different direction."

SINGER-SONGWRITER JAMES O’BRIEN has been making a name himself on the local folk scene for several years now. At first, he took to the stage inspired by the way Dan Bern and others were playing "anti-folk," in essence acoustic-based music with guts, power, and nerve. He began hosting Club Passim’s famed open-mike nights, and he expanded his own performances by occasionally adding a drummer and traveling a national circuit of coffeehouses.

Now O’Brien has set his sights on rock clubs with his tough new Church of the Kitchen Sink (Digital Bear Entertainment). The disc’s 14 songs wed his smart, politically charged lyrics to a group who telegraph his messages through dashes and dots of electric guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards. O’Brien delivers his words with something akin to the spiritual charge possessed by Phil Ochs and Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett, but from a solidly agnostic viewpoint. Although his music bristles with respect and love for humanity, it’s clear he feels that we’ve made our own dirty bed and that we need to rely on our own strength and integrity to drag our beleaguered asses out of it and create a new day.

Caught recently with his new group at the Milky Way in Jamaica Plain, O’Brien managed his transformation from charismatic folk performer to rocker without a hitch, using his strong voice and acoustic guitar as an anchor amid what often developed into something of a sonic tornado. Not that he isn’t still playing solo gigs with his acoustic six-string — "I need that troubadour experience, where I soak up news and experiences and go out and share my observations." O’Brien will appear in that incarnation at Harvard Square’s this Friday at 8 p.m., opening for Four Way Street. (For more information, visit www.jamesobrien.cc.) "Certainly I don’t think it’s better business to begin playing rock clubs, but the tension between the structure of pop and rock songs and my folk inclinations has always been there for me. There just came a point where I wanted to hear the rest of the sounds I was hearing in my head while I was on stage, too."

O’Brien was performing "Black Helicopters," with its dark CIA conspiracy fantasy, "The War Has Come," a study in anger and frustration, and other numbers on Church of the Kitchen Sink solo before his new band began playing out last month. "We have to sort out the arrangements differently. We had to discover the right balance between giving people too many lyrics and not giving them enough rock. Luckily there’s a template for it. Midnight Oil, U2, and the Tragically Hip are all bands that have done okay being conscious of lyrics and having a message up front over full-tilt rock and roll."

ORBIT were Boston’s last great contribution to alternative rock, a band whose catchy songwriting pulsed, crackled, and jittered to the snap of a dynamic rhythm section and loud but smart and spiky guitars. After several years of near-constant national touring and a spin on the major-label carousel, Orbit went on indefinite hiatus two years ago. Now half the band’s line-up, singer/guitarist Jeff Robbins and bassist Linda Bean, have a CD with their new outfit Well. The disc takes some of the burrs off their old sound and adds the modernist filigrees of looping and drum programs — yet a basic rock-and-roll heart beats at its center.

Well’s six-song The New Standard Biscuit, which is on Orbit drummer Paul Buckley’s Lunch label, takes its name from a rather dry Japanese brand of cookie. Cookies are nice, and so are this EP’s sentiments. It kicks off with "Mindreader," which blends a vocal melody considerably warmer than Orbit’s usual fare with a flowing groove and a keyboard line that recalls the smooth, jazzy arrangements of classic Steely Dan — at least until blasts of either feedback or a high-toned synth kick in. Orbit fans get a first taste of chunky angular guitar when "Bring It On" kicks up. Drummer Robert Brazier, formerly with the ’90s Boston outfit Smackmelon, lays a shuffle modified for a trip-hop vibe underneath. Like those songs, "Up on Mars" flows gently, but it has a more introspective, less buoyant rock approach.

Despite that, The New Standard Biscuit’s numbers explore a kinder, gentler emotional terrain than Orbit’s, which often seem formed by fits of frustration and self-loathing. Well’s "Happy," for example, is all about promise. Robbins begins by singing, "I’m looking over/Everything that I’ve left behind/I start to discover/That it never really mattered why/We could be happy/Even if we’re unhappy now." That notion is reinforced by a bed of acoustic guitars, Bean’s rolling bass melody, and cheery keyboards. Even "I’m Oblivion," the obelisk of big guitars that closes the disc, offers a silver lining in its lyrics’ celebration of free will.

"Orbit was embracing the angst, lyrically," Robbins explains. "I embraced a lot of the awkwardness I was feeling as a person and a songwriter. Well is about being more optimistic and less ironic. It helps that life is pretty good. I’ve been making music for TV commercials in my studio, and that’s going really well, and my wife is having a baby this month. So I’m happy to not be going out on the road for three months at a time like we did in Orbit."

Well’s sound grew out of a fascination with electronica that Robbins acquired as Orbit wound down. "Orbit was often confused with the Orb and Orbital — both electronic bands. We’re far more like those groups than Orbit was." Even to the extent of using a click track and backing recordings to bring Well’s more expansive palette to stage. "At first I felt that was kind of stiff and mechanical, but after a few gigs it became really natural. Now there’s some room for us to breathe when we play the music live."

He continues, "One of the things that really bothered me about electronica bands is that they’re boring live." To combat that, Robbins, Bean, and some collaborators have made short films that accompany Well’s live performances. "We project those behind the band, and it gives the performance another dimension."

Well are taking a break from the stages of Boston and New York, where the group have been playing, at least until the new member of the Robbins family arrives. Meanwhile, Bean’s animated video for "Up on Mars" can be viewed at www.wellband.net.

The Revolutionary Snake Ensemble appear on Thursday February 26 at the Center for Arts, 14 Summer Street in Natick; call (508) 647-0097. James O’Brien plays at 8 p.m. this Friday, January 16, at Club Passim, 47 Palmer Street in Harvard Square; call (617) 492-7679.

Issue Date: January 16 - 22, 2004
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