Hot damn and hallelujah, yours truly is going to catch Junkyard Empire at the Cedar Cultural Center. I get a late start, but figure I’m still in good shape. Show starts at 8, it’s a few minutes of. I shouldn’t miss much of their set if I get a move on.
When I get there, nothing’s going on. Seems to be a break between acts. Good time to track down bandleader Christopher Robin Cox (swear to God, that’s his name) and get me a copy of their new disc Rebellion Politik. He’s nowhere to be found. Frontman Brihanu’s around. I’m loathe, though, to bother him. The guy’s holding court. In a corner of the lobby, he’s kicked back on a couch, talking to a captive handful of folk hanging on his every word. This is not the time to interrupt with “Hey, man, how you been?” I keep looking for Cox. He finds me before I can find him. Comes up and we chew the rag awhile. A cat joins us, fella whose band I covered sometime back. I don’t recognize him from Adam’s housecat but am polite and shake his hand. He can’t believe I don’t remember him and, as I turn, moving away to go get a beer, starts grabbing at me. I have to insist that he unhand me. To recall that immortal philosopher Doc Holliday in the flick Tombstone, I will not be pawed, thank you.
I have a Beck’s, Chris Cox stands pat. We talk shop. The band’s trip, gigging in Cuba, he relates, was a hands-down success. On top of which he really enjoyed the change of social climate. “It is”, he said, “the most open and non-repressive place I ever been except Brazil.” Like that’s some sort of frame of reference. For as close as I’ll ever get to Brazil, he may as well have said Mars. I just nod, glad for him. He’s real pleased about Junkyard Empire having signed with the Media Roots Music label. “They don’t try to make us somebody we’re not. They let us be ourselves. They get it.” We talk about Gil Scott-Heron. And a few other things. Then, “I gotta catch El Guante“, he says, rushing inside.
“Okay”, I say to his turned back that’s already going through the doors. I do not follow, having never been partial to El Guante, whom I find pretentious as the day is long. This is not a turn of events for which I’m prepared. I showed up expecting Junkyard Empire to be onstage and, while I dug catching up with Cox, doesn’t mean I have any intention of sitting through a full set of El Guante. In fact, after popping my head in and out a couple times, I’ve had more than enough. Game plan: go down the block to Palmer’s, have a couple reasonably priced drinks and, by the time I’m done, Junkyard Empire’ll be either on or ready to go on. I get to Palmer’s, though, and they’ve got a cover, ‘cause there’s a band. I cut my not so small losses (haven’t seen JE but once since I started covering the band and that was years ago). Decide, instead of cooling my heels, either wandering the streets or sitting in the Cedar lobby, to go home and review Rebellion Politik.
On the way, Bedlam Theatre‘s open. Chancing it that artistic director John Beuche’s on the premises, I stop in. Lo and behold, his is the first face I see. He treats me to a glass of Summit and, while we’re waiting for the bartender to get around to us, I grill John on what’s what these days at Bedlam. We step into the house, where the set for Million Dollar Museum is a week away from production. The area’s an intriguing expanse of odd imagery that surrounds seating for the audience. John and I chat. Turns out Foxy Tann will direct the Christmas holiday show, Beaverdance. I roll my eyes in delight. With that dauntless heathen at the helm, it’s a perfect match of artist and venue. Foxy Tann is an unbridled hellion and Bedlam—well, it didn’t take the name idly—is a madhouse of irreverence. The conversation’s cut short after about 15 minutes. John has work to do. Anyway, I gotta get home. He takes his leave. I wolf down my beer and beat it.
At the crib, I put Rebellion Politik on and immediately catch a strange experience. It’s not frontman Brihanu leading in but some woman who sounds real familiar, though I can’t place from where. Turns out, consulting the cover, the number’s called “Original Assumption” and that woman’s voice belongs to Desdamona. She and Brihanu are trading off. Behind them, Cox on trombone and keys, Bryan Berry (guitar), Dan Choma (bass, piano) and Graham O’Brien (drums) provide gorgeous texture. It’s hard to ask for a better marriage of avant-garde jazz and spoken word. The title cut follows, a bittersweet blend of rock and funk behind lyrics like “Rebellion Politik, the opposite of what you know as politics/ Where corporate capital makes the government break their promise/ It’s a new day where people create the policy/ And the economy trickles up to eradicate the poverty/ So get up, stand up, these are our demands, what/ We want our money back so politicians get your hands up.” (JE greeted the Republican National Convention in St. Paul with its Cities-wide mini-tour, the Anti-RNC Tour.)
In the same vein we have a somber, disquieting cut “Manifest,” which would serve well as a, so to speak, anti-national anthem. It pulls no punches in citing the documented impetus behind the fraudulent phrase “the land of the free and the home of brave,” sullenly denouncing the infamous doctrine Manifest Destiny as well as the extent which it’s being applied across the globe. It goes, in part, “First written by a Democrat, John O’Sullivan/ It was used to justify taking Texas from the Mexicans/ Not to mention slaughtering every Native American/ But why stop there, let’s just snatch the whole Caribbean/ Haiti to Puerto Rico and the Dominican.” Slicing hard to the bone are the lines, “There’s oil is Uzbekistan, so we control Afghanistan/ Build pipelines and ship it south of Pakistan/ It’s manifested, the world is ours for the taking/ Forsaking every ounce of decency, call it the great awakening/ Manifest Destiny is a doctrine of oppression/ Cleaned and dressed up for national protection.”
There may just be hope yet for a return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when the Last Poets got the whole music-meets-poetry thing started on a national scale. There is, if Junkyard Empire has anything to say about it. And one of these days, God willing and the creek don’t rise, yours truly will yet again catch them in action. Meanwhile, it’s been a busy night and time to get some rack.