There’s an anodyne moment on 75 Dollar Bill’s Live at Tubby’s that might’ve been scrubbed from the recording in another era. Before the final song, saxophonist Cheryl Kingan asks if anyone is headed after the show toward Catskill, about 30 miles up the Hudson River. A man in the audience offers her a ride; she sings back, “Amaaazing!” Then the band jumps into “WZN #3”—a nearly 25-minute journey that brushes up against the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,” Henry Flynt’s drone work, and Pharoah Sanders’ playing on Ascension—as though her request was unremarkable.
Back then it was, at least for another few days. To end their 2020 tour of the Northeast, 75 Dollar Bill packed Tubby’s, a Hudson Valley bar and grill, to its 80-person capacity for an impromptu gig on March 7. Touring as a duo, guitarist Che Chen and drummer Rick Brown called some old friends to fill out the lineup, and without rehearsing, the septet, dubbed the 75 Dollar Bill Little Big Band, played a couple sets. This would be the last 75 Dollar Bill show for the foreseeable future.
Since forming in 2012, the New York band has typically emphasized texture over genre: Any given recording might encompass a dart thrown at the ECM catalog, a twister of fuzz guitar from the Western Sahara, a dispatch from Alice Coltrane’s ashram, or all of those combined. That texture is never richer for 75 Dollar Bill than it is on Live at Tubby’s, as the group expands infinitely within the boundaries of each composition.
It’s apparent early in the recording that there’s a special feeling in the room. Just as Brown and Chen are locked in, exploring space with the Little Big Band, the crowd is obviously thrilled to accompany the ensemble on its journey. Feeding off that communal energy, 75 Dollar Bill breathe new life into songs like “I’m Not Trying to Wake Up,” from 2016’s Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock. While the studio version is more polished—Live at Tubby’s is not the most professional live recording—the band’s performance is more dynamic here. Kingan accents Sue Garner’s basslines, creating a mud-thick effect, and Karen Waltuch’s improvised viola solos attack alongside Steve Maing and Chen’s ascending guitar runs. Brown, normally the lone rhythm section, thwacking hands and mallets into a plywood crate, is augmented by a live drummer. Together, they explode in a percussive blast near the end of the track, crescendoing into an Amon Düül-type acid-rock freakout. The studio version sounds like a dirge by comparison.
“Like Like Laundry” is a full 11 minutes shorter than the 33-minute studio version, but the live performance bursts at the seams as endless layers of improvisation unfold over a single mesmerizing riff. Chen’s masterful soloing is no longer the centerpiece, which is no knock on him. Instead, his guitar dances within Maing’s modal spirals as the dual percussionists build a swell of polyrhythms around them. It’s a dazzling, hypnotic effect, and the result is greater than the sum of its parts, evincing a palpable chemistry between the musicians, rehearsed or not.
Halfway through the record, Brown mentions that 75 Dollar Bill “isn’t really a covers band,” but nonetheless will play one in the spirit of the friends joining the duo onstage. “Friends and Neighbors” originally appeared on Ornette Coleman’s own impromptu live album Friends and Neighbors: Live at Prince Street, recorded at his downtown New York loft in 1970. It’s strange enough for Coleman, the architect of free jazz, to include vocals on a composition, and weirder still for the instrumental 75 Dollar Bill to pick precisely that track to cover live. But it’s perfect symmetry for a spontaneous jam session among friends almost exactly 50 years after Coleman’s recording. The band shouts in unison, over percussive stumbling: “Friends and neighbors, that’s where it’s at! Friends and neighbors, that’s a fact! Hand in hand, that’s the goal! Hand in hand, that’s the goal! All the world: soul, soul, soul!”
Today, that cover allows us, in our antiseptic bubbles, to imagine the beauty of human touch, saxophones spraying droplets, sharing a joint with a stranger. Live at Tubby’s is a time capsule that enables us to live in a world diametrically opposed to this one, back when kinship and proximity were inalienable and essential, and when hitching a ride with an audience member didn’t carry the implicit threat of contagion. Had the album been recorded a month earlier, perhaps it wouldn’t have as powerful an effect as it does. It’s difficult to find serendipity in any of the last nine months, but Live at Tubby’s comes close. It’s a document from an archaic universe, a reminder of life before the plague year(s), and the promise of a rebuilt, but sadly distant, future.
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