I have a good few mysterious records in my collection, as you can probably imagine. Among the more obtuse are a bunch by a shadowy New York collective called The No-Neck Blues Band. It’s not always easy to read these albums, since the band have an apparent disdain for even the most fundamental marketing expediencies. Often, their name is nowhere to be found on the package, replaced by a kind of glyph that, decoded, reads NNCK.
No surprise, I guess, that No-Neck’s music is similarly elusive. Mostly, their records (I like 2003’s “Intonomancy” best, of the ones I have) are eerie commune jams; improvised dispatches from the wilder shores of the free-folk movement. One of their number, though, is called Dave Shuford, who increasingly works under the name of D Charles Speer to make a radically different sort of music. Where No-Neck feel unanchored and ethereal, D Charles Speer and his band The Helix sound tremendously earthed, deep in American tradition.
I’ve written plenty before about bands who straddle the divide between roots music and the avant-garde. Many clustered around the late guitarist Jack Rose, and figured on the “Honest Strings” tribute album; The Helix actually joined Rose on his last EP, “Ragged And Right”. Nevertheless, the disparity between No-Neck’s explorations and the Helix’s honky-tonk country rock is still startling.
Ostensibly, on their forthcoming third album, Speer and The Helix resemble a terrific, intermittently cosmic, bar band. There’s an obvious antecedent for this stuff, and much of Leaving The Commonwealth has the spirit of The Grateful Dead circa “Europe ’72”, especially the roistering, spiralling “Freddie’s Lapels”. But everything here, from zydeco dalliances to the levitational riffing of the title track, is hugely enjoyable in its own right. Speer is a charismatic baritone, paying sweet homage to Rose during “Cumberland” (“Still can’t believe Dr Ragtime’s gone,” he drawls, “he should be right over there, booing this lousy song.”), and he’s blessed with a fine and feisty band; Hans Chew, whose own “Tennessee And Other Stories…” was one of my favourites of 2010, is prominent on piano throughout, along with the pedal steel ace, Marc Orleans (another No-Neck vet, who also figures in the equally zonked Sunburned Hand Of The Man).
Digressing for a moment, Chew and Orleans provide back-up to the guitarist Chris Forsyth on his new one, “Paranoid Cat”. There’s a tribute to Jack Rose here, too (“New Pharmacist Boogie”), but the album’s dominated by the amazing 20-minute title track, where Forsyth moves through Sandy Bull-ish passages of folk-raga, through systems drones, and into rattling full-band workouts and rearing electric cacophonies.
Some of Forsyth’s more abstract moments sit reasonably well alongside yet another D Charles Speer album on the way, a solo set called “Arghiledes”. This one is, of all things, a selection of bouzouki freak-outs heavily influenced, it seems, by early 20th Century Greek drug music. As a document of Speer’s eclecticism and virtuosity, it’s certainly compelling, and it makes me wonder what other tangents are hidden on his CV. I found a couple of his albums with The Suntanama, pleasingly ragged Southern-rockers from the turn of the century, at home. But can anyone fill me in on Enos Slaughter? Egypt Is The Magick #? Coach Fingers? Your help, as ever, is much appreciated.