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David Grubbs - Spitz, London, 12/6/2005

  by Anthony Dhanendran

published: 23 / 7 / 2005

David Grubbs - Spitz, London, 12/6/2005


David Grubbs is best known for his work with Jim O' Rourke in post-rock group Gastr del Sol, but now has a three album solo career. Anthony Dhanendran watches him play a sometimes brilliant, but confusing set at the London Spitz

On a sparse stage, high up above Spitalfields Market in east London, David Grubbs is about to play. The only objects on the stage are a table, laden with a white iBook and some electronic gizmos, a high-backed chair with a microphone on a tall stand in front of it, and a smaller chair with a smaller microphone stand before it and a large cello perched beside it. An unassuming-looking man takes the stage, balding and sensibly clothed, and carrying a guitar. Behind him follows a younger guy, with glasses and sensible clothing. David Grubbs introduces his cellist as Nikos. From Athens. Athens, Tennessee, apparently. They launch into 'The Neophyte', from last year’s 'Guess at the Riddle'. Halfway through, the song shifts from being a plucked, sitar-like meditation to a strummed, more conventional thing, although the lyrics give away that this is no mere singer-songwriter. The overall effect evokes Michael Stipe, who could almost have taken lessons from Grubbs. Grubbs, a Kentucky native now living in New York, is best known for his ten-year stretch in Chicago, during which time he was a member of seminal groups Bastro and Squirrel Bait, before finding a kindred spirit, of sorts, in Jim O’Rourke. The two founded Gastr del Sol, who issued several landmark mid-1990s post-rock albums before O’Rourke decided it was time to move on. O’Rourke is now probably best known outside post-rock circles for his recent work with Sonic Youth, while Grubbs went on to display a gift for unorthodox songwriting, on albums which paired his lyrical touch with his deft guitar playing. Over the next few songs, the pair of them settle down and the mood becomes less avant-garde, and almost folky. For a Grubbs neophyte, though, it’s still hard to fathom what he’s on about most of the time. Despite the geography-teacher looks, Grubbs does have the charisma and the ability, in his been-there, seen-it-all-before voice, to make you believe, really believe, in what he’s saying, despite not having any idea what he actually is saying. It’s no mean feat. Two of the outstanding tracks also come from 'A Guess at the Riddle' – 'A Cold Apple', which he introduces as being “set in Black Mountain, North Carolina, in 1952,” and 'One Way out of the Maze', which showcases his brilliant dexterity with the guitar. Like David Gilmour, to pluck a name from the other end of the rock spectrum, it’s a little hard to believe that such sounds are being made from someone who looks so, well, normal. It’s in the middle of the gig that it starts to drag very slightly. Like many virtuoso instrumentalists, the pair deftly execute several nice moves with their instruments, but it’s hard to focus on particular songs, and it’s moments of brilliance that shine out afterwards rather than brilliant songs. Those moments include Grubbs bowing his guitar, and a plucked cello made to sound almost like a tabla. The presence of the Mac becomes apparent towards the end of the set, as wave after wave of electronics wash over the sounds, apparently triggered by the cello. Grubbs takes a while to tune up before this one, quipping to the crowd: “My guitar is old and arthritic. And I’m not projecting on it.” Although he doesn’t seem to be sweating much, particularly given his playing, he wipes his brow after each song. What he introduces as the “last song” turns out to be 'A Pair of Ravens'. Although it’s fairly cold outside, at the top of the Spitz it’s stifling, but the gently plucked acoustics of the song break through the heat nicely. “Don’t forget to tip your bartender” are Grubbs’s final words of advice to the crowd as he leaves the stage, before returning for a pair of swift songs in the encore, one with cello and a slower solo piece. All in all, it’s a strange evening – certainly satisfying and very impressive in both players’ work with their instruments. But for those not already acquainted with David Grubbs, and despite the many high points during the set, it still feels like we haven’t quite got the point.

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David Grubbs - Spitz, London, 12/6/2005

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