Fuel Consumption Way Too Fast
The Jaimie Branch Trio
by Mike Faloon
Arrive early at Quinn’s in Beacon and you’ll see instruments waiting on stage and musicians mingling up front. Chances are whoever is playing that night has already caught up with Craig. He knows everyone and their records, too, though you’d have to prompt him on those. He’s humble. The seat next to Craig is open. I order a drink and ask how he’s doing. “Had a late night and a busy week,” he says, “one set then I’m gone.”
The brim of Jaimie Branch’s White Sox cap is turned up and to the side. The tail of her belt hangs loose. Her backpack yields a piece of sheet metal that she tosses on the stage. Her look is laid back but she attacks from note one, up and out and gone, each push of her trumpet’s valves like flame to wick, explosions flashing. It’s incendiary, the work of a sonic subversive whose placement of materials is strategic and timing precise, maximizing impact and transforming the terrain.
A friend is talking about a band from Toronto but blanking on the name. He says that for over forty years they’ve maintained a routine of playing every Monday, and they asked Joe McPhee—a regular performer at Quinn’s—to come up and play with them, but he can’t recall the band’s name. Nor can anyone else. Craig returns from a cigarette break, overhears a detail and asks, “Are you talking about the Nihilist Spasm Band?”
It’s not like Craig to say he’s leaving early. I ask if his week’s been good busy or stressful busy. “Fifty-fifty,” he says. He mentions a doctor’s appointment. I’ve noticed that he hasn’t been using his cane lately and wonder how that ties in but don’t want to pry.
Branch tugs on her t-shirt, wipes her mouth on the collar. Bassist Brandon Lopez and drummer Mike Pride solo around and elevate one another, intertwined, a double helix spiraling upward and blazing ahead. Then it’s rhythm section role reversal. Lopez rubs and slaps the side of his bass while Pride pulls a bow along the edge of a cymbal.
Early in Lynda Barry’s Syllabus she revisits an old journal. At the time she was trying to be more observant, more open to experiences, get past thinking “nothing happened.” She didn’t want to feel compelled to “agree with, understand, (or) like” what she experienced. She wanted to “just see.”
Right now I see a band humming along, a catamaran on the open sea, sailing on one hull, precariously close to tipping over. Though they hardly resemble the sailboat set seen in catalogs, coifs glued in place, shirts tucked in, smiles ready for toothpaste ads. The trio is more whaling crew, rough and tumble, beards and tats, appearances secondary, at best, to their riveting combination of sonic discord and social cohesion. All hands on deck, a group of three charged with the work of a dozen, inviting and averting disaster. Roles less rigidly defined, more fluid.
The time between sets is longer. The crowd thins but Craig is still here. He’ll be part of the post-show hang, too. For now, we talk about the Mets, another unturned double play and just-short comeback, and the record collection he’s thinking of selling off. I ask if he’s feeling better, perhaps caught a second wind. “Not really,” he says, “but the music’s too good and the band deserves better.”
Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is a beautifully sprawling memoir. Navigating the course of her childhood, Woodson transports us from early ‘60s Ohio to South Carolina to Brooklyn. As she examines the relationships that shaped her—growing up in her sister’s shadow, figuring out her absent father, grappling with her grandmother’s Christian Science faith—she charts the evolution of a persona as bold and self-assured as it is graceful and tender.
There is a recombination of elements in the second set, more room to stretch, to breathe. Branch extinguishes the Molotov cocktails in favor of candles, takes the street fight tableside. She tilts her head to the side and cleans the slate before propelling a series of delicate, prolonged notes that go right through me, opening new possibilities as to what can be heard and felt. There’s a density that I’ve not experienced before, something redemptive, reassuring, bigger than me. It’s like the first time I heard the Minutemen. A friend asked me to make a copy of his 3-Way Tie for Last cassette. I didn’t know anything about the band or underground punk. I assumed that I would set the tape-to-tape deck in motion, confirm my negative assumptions about punk rock, and leave the room. Instead I stayed, slack jawed, glued to the band’s live wire crackle and squawk, my eyes opened to colors I’d never before seen.
I reach for my phone to record Branch’s solo but fumble to get it out in time. I’m not sure how committed I am to the idea. I don’t want to take my eyes off the band, the moment seems so fragile and intimate, and even then I realize that these sounds won’t be on my phone later. They can’t be captured, not completely. Much of the appeal of live improvised music is seeing the means and the ends, witnessing all that occurs between the notes, the deliberations and decisions, the wincing and grimacing and reaching.
One day in church school Woodson is asked to write a skit about the resurrection. She takes to the task with great enthusiasm. She asks if she can stand up and move about the stage. She asks if she can work by herself and tries to enhance the assignment by adding her own ideas. She wants to include horses and cows in her skit. She wants to know what happens to animals when they die. Her choices meet with continual resistance. Sit down. Leave out the animals. Stop asking questions. Her desire to explore and inquire, to assert herself, to make the experience more distinctive, more unique, is squelched at every turn.
Branch paces, circles the stage, listens to her bandmates, picks up the sheet metal-turned-mute. Like a pitcher changing arm angles, she alters her delivery—up and down, side to side, diagonally—as well as her proximity to the microphone. She drops her right arm to her side, reveals the “Toucan spaceship” tattoo on her left forearm. Her right arm has a dog plane. Snuffian ruffians, she calls them. So many variables at her disposal yet constantly stamping each moment with her indelible sound.
Toward the end of the night, a handful of us remaining, Craig leans over and says, “This reminds me of these late night sets I’d see downtown. Two, three in the morning. Ten people, maybe, in the audience. It’s out of time, you know, like it’s ours. You hold it closer.”
Mike Faloon is the author of The Hanging Gardens of Split Rock and the co-editor of Fan Interference. He is the co-founder of the zines Go Metric and Zisk. He has contributed to Cashiers du Cinema, Razorcake, and Submerging Writers, along with quote #490 in David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.