The opening track of Ben Vida’s first record, “Green Inferno”, under his Bird Show moniker appropriately starts off with the chirping of birds and then a fierce attack of layered and densely textured noise created from a variety of instruments. “All Afternoon Part #1” is a track that sounds like the drone of a deep forest and yet it was created in Vida’s bedroom using a mixture of found sounds, electronics and organic instrumentation. It is this gorgeous and challenging mix that really defines Bird Show, if Bird Show can even be defined. Like nature and like the human mind, Bird Show is an ever evolving animal. Vida never settles and yet still never strives either. Bird Show seems to operate somewhere between inspiration, collaboration, exploration and and taoist philosophy which never constrains but always keeps the sounds alive, moving and progressing.
Vida, now 32, grew up in Minneapolis with a mother who taught piano and a brother (Adam Vida of U.S. Maple) who always was game for exploring new music. In middle school Vida picked up the guitar and his brother started playing drums. The first record around the house was “The White Album” which the two listened to constantly, yet when the brothers Vida started discovering music on their own it was decidedly different. Vida says, “When we started to buy our own records we would get metal and rock and punk—the first Suicidal Tendencies record and Loose Nut by Black Flag where listened to a lot. Greg Ginn’s guitar playing on those Black Flag records just fucked with my head.” Eventually high school was soon upon the young Ben Vida and Miles Davis and marijuana could account, in retrospect, much of the early inspiration behind Bird Show. “In High School,” Vida recounts, “I listened to a lot of electric Miles—getting high and tripping out to Big Fun and Bitches Brew—my friends and I would try to play this music and the freedom of it really opened my ears to all the more experimental music I would get turned on too later on.” Vida then would start collaborating with the Minneapolis free jazz legend Milo Fine who record for the HatHut label and worked with Joe McPhee. As Vida explains, Fine’s influence on his life “really had a lot to do with being able to open up to hearing all kinds of music and to search out those records, books, movies, etc. that are off the beaten path.”
Shortly after moving to Chicago, in 1996 Vida formed the group Town and Country, the band most people know him from, who have released five albums on the great Thrill Jockey Records. The latest album, Up Above, has been released to critical praise for its electronic and free flowing compositions which differed from the group’s more acoustic based work. While Vida may be considered the ringleader of the band, Town and Country also features amazing musicians like Liz Payne, Jim Dorling and Josh Abrams who now combine harmoniously to create the group’s sound. Vida says of Town and Country that “We are sometimes perceived as making a music that is austere or schooled. This is strange to me because we where always working outside the realm of things that where comfortable for us . . . pushing outside of what we already knew, pushing ourselves into that fucked-up place where shit gets weirder or edgier.” Pushing himself is one thing Vida would plead guilty to as Town and Country and Bird Show take up most of his time, musically, he has also been in groups like Dreamweapon (with jazz percussionist and improviser Michael Zerang, Rob Lowe of 90 Day Men and Lichens, and other Town and Country members), Pillow (with Fred Lonberg-Holm), Central Falls (with brother Adam) and even Joan of Arc (with Tim Kinsella and list of other amazing members much too long to name!). Chicago has always had a vibrant avant-jazz scene where improvisation has been the key to keeping things fresh but lately artists like Ben Vida and Rob Lowe with their projects Bird Show and Lichens, respectively, have been taking the avant into a new realm of universal musical influence and confluence which is really starting to shake up a city mostly known around the world for creating and slowly but surely reifying post-rock. And this “new” creativity is what Vida really grasps. “This is what I really have started to understand, this is what really matters: that it is the everyday life that you lead as a creative person that is special—not what you get out of it in terms of an ego trip—that shit will screw you creatively. It is being able to just get lost in the work, nothing else. I have gotten to travel a bit and do some wonderful things because of making music but it is all just extra and has nothing to do with what it is really all about. After ten years of making records I think I am beginning to figure out more clearly what is real and what is not as far as ones creative spirit is concerned. I want more purposelessness in my musical life.” He goes on to explain, “What I mean is, not being concerned with anything but the moment when the music is being made, having that be what it is all about, for no purposes beyond that.”
And Bird Show was created for just that purpose(lessness). Vida “wanted to be able to get into some more unusual places” and take his time experimenting and trying new things out and let what was influencing him, what was around him, come through that creative outlet of composing in his bedroom. Bird Show didn’t start with a name or even as a new project. Vida never had the intention of releasing what was happening in this new creative consciousness he had tapped into. He found that “to not have any other goals in mind but to make the music was” extremely liberating. But then how did Bird Show become Bird Show? The famously ambitious Chicago label Kranky agreed to put out Vida’s first set of compositions which would end up being the debut Bird Show album “Green Inferno”. Then Vida found even more enjoyment taking Bird Show out of his bedroom, out of his head and off the recorded path and onto the stage. While dubbed a solo project by many, Vida will be the first to admit that Bird Show wouldn’t be what it is without the help of like-minded musicians who have collaborated on both his records and on stage. The Bird Show live experience is truly transcendent and Vida has had several pairs of hands helping him during different stages of the live process, like wildly talented and brilliant multi-instrumentalists such as Keith Fullerton Whitman and Greg Davis and more recently, and consistently, Town and Country member and jazz improviser extraodinaire Josh Abrams (on a number of instruments) and Vida’s brother Ben (providing percussion). Vida feels that letting in all of these diverse elements into the live show not only helps the creative process but creates an atmosphere of communication which he feels to be the most important aspect when performing for a crowd.
In early April, relatively recently after the release of the latest Town and Country album “Up Above”, Vida and Kranky put out “Lightning Ghost”, the second Bird Show long player. “Lightning Ghost” is a natural progression from the first record. Relying more on guitar, vocals and heavy layers of electronic and organic instrumentation and less on found sound and noise, “Lightning Ghost” is compositional gorgeous on so many levels. Vida explains some of the differences on the news album. “I played more guitar because I was hearing more guitar—funny little solos—and of course I have been listening to so much guitar music from South Africa and Ethiopia.” He continues, “I sang more because I really love singing and the sound of lots of voices together. The melody and song forms came later in making these pieces, they revealed themselves after awhile. I like experimenting with vocal parts and harmonies and lyrics and form; how they work in a song, what role they play. Having the songs want more voices was wonderful. I felt so good just tracking voice after voice and having the song take shape.” And that, in the end, is what Bird Show is all about: the songs and what the songs want. While the ideas may originate in the head of Ben Vida, Bird Show is a culmination of happy accidents, creative collaborations and the ability to modestly step back and let something form on its own. As was written in the Tao Te Ching: “When spring comes, the grass grows by itself.”
Franco Battiato - Sulle Corde Di Aries and Clic
Both from1974 , perfect experimental/world/psych head music. Kind of like an Italian Popol Vuh but really just its own deep thing. Lots of echoplex and tremolo and great multi tracked thumb piano and synth washes (and cello played by Jane Robertson who was also recording with Don Cherry around this time!). These records have a nice sort of mildly paranoid speedy stoned feel. That they aren't more talked about really surprises me because they have the world psychedelic vibe that is so in the air these days.
Don Cherry – Brown Rice
True psychedelic music. The gamelan like figure that opens the title track, the Double bass doubled up one with wah-wah, the tambour breakdown in the middle of the first side and it is all there and complete and then the trumpet comes in and right, of course, perfect spiritual trumpet. Wonderful singing with heart and reverb and so witchy. This record must have seemed like the end of the world to even free jazz fans but of course that is nonsense. The music Don Cherry made in the 70s is pure visionary spiritual magic .
Well, alright The Fall. My favorite minimalists/minimalists. Listening too them always helps to recalibrate my idea of “experimental” music. What Mark E. Smith does lyrically still totally freaks me out even after years of listening - total vision. Every doubled vocal part, every hand-held tape-recorder interference, the violin scratch, the distortion and noise it is gold and the vibe is way beyond imitation.
Ahallil de Gourara – Sacred songs from the Sahara
This amazing CD from Algeria put out on the French label Institut Du Monde Arabe. Apparently this music is only performed after dar. A group of men gather together and sit and sing lead by a vocalist/ poet and accompanied by either flute and hand drum or gumbri and stone player. The call and response and mellow hand clapping is quite narcotic and the locked groove that they get into at the end of each piece is pure 3am music.
Van Morrison – T.B. Sheets
Totally inspiring tambourine playing and Eric Gale’s guitar is all awesome serpentine flow. These are Van Morrison’s Bang recordings made, I think around the time he was leaving Them. A few of these songs would show up on Astral Weeks. Super cool to hear the way this band treats them.
Catano Veloso – Joia
My favorite Catano record. The instrument and vocal arrangements are quite unique and so subtle and his voice is like a bell. Catano's records always feel intimate but this is some next level stuff and so sadly beautiful.
Robert Wyatt - Old Rottenhat
I think this is my favorite record of his. The songs and singing and message are just all so strong. There is not a lot of experimenting or free jazz jamming on this one but just keyboard, simple percussion and his beautiful voice.
Brigitte Fontaine and Areski Belkacem – Vous Et Nous
From 1977 all the surreal vocal play, folk songs and hand drums you could want and a few strange moog interjections to boot. They sing so wonderfully together and play upon at fine line between folk music and experimental performance art so fearlessly that you juat totally believe it.
Ethiopiques 5 – Tigrigna Music
Electric krar, keyboards, electric bass and guitar, handclaps and a bass drum. Every disc I have heard from this series is great and this may be my favorite. The guitar lines on these tunes have so many twists and turns and you always think you know where the one is until the handclaps come in it just turns you around, which is very cool. Groovy music that is a call for revolution. They say this was what modern Ethiopia sounded like in the 70s.
-- Josh Honn (2 July, 2006)