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Christmaseastermass at Normals, Dec. 21

December 24, 2008

Leave it to Normals Books and Records to assemble one of those days that remind you how great it is to live in Baltimore. On the Sunday prior to the “official” pagan-Christian-commercialism December holiday, Daniel Higgs put together his own celebration for Normals’ third annual Christmaseastermass, and this casual event was the perfect antidote to what usually passes for yuletide cheer. A string of artists performed, people escaped the cold inside the store and caught up with friends old and new among the stacks and racks, and, in general, enjoy a relaxed afternoon of music.

An afternoon volunteer effort had me arriving a bit after the 3 p.m. start, and the Red Room was already full of people checking out Old Songs, the Tinklers’ Chris Mason and ex-Half Japanese man Mark Jickling’s project where they set ancient Greek poetry–such as Archilochos, Hipponax, Alcman, Alcaeus, Xenophanes, you know, the real classics–to ye olde timey acoustic music. I couldn’t quite squeeze into the performance space, but could hear the band’s dulcet songs from the store’s entryway and, unless my ears are failing me more than usual, it sounded like Liz Downing joined the guys for a few Sappho tunes.

Throughout the afternoon, friends and acquaintances jostled past, stepped out for a quick bite or a smoke, and, in general, drank in the afternoon’s ultra-chill vibe. And the brief intermission opened up a few spaces in the back of the Red Room from which to take in Asa Osborne’s Zomes project. His Zomes debut on Holy Mountain is an intoxicating, subdued drone capable of transporting the brain into a pleasant limbo of reverberating introspection, and live the Lungfish guitarist is joined by two other (what appeared to be) keyboard players to recreate his graceful, looping harmonies. And as befits a man who never needed three chords when he knew hypnotic repetitions of two could make the earth tremble, Zomes live explores galaxies in the simple collisions of cyclical note patterns. It isn’t nearly as artfully polished as it is on record, but the music’s rawness in person–hearing background amplifier buzz when all three players are at rest, catching the crackle of organs punch through speakers, Osborne physically cycling through his recorded rhythms on cassette tape–makes it both more elemental and spellbinding.

Local poet Chris Toll read a few pieces after Zomes’ gorgeous set–including a daft poem that he dubbed Emily Dickinson’s first (though numbered last) work, the result of her finding a time machine after befriending Edgar Allan Poe–followed immediately by Father Christmaseastermass himself, Daniel Higgs. He sat at the front of the room, tied a belled rhythm shaker to his right foot, unrolled a good foot of narrow white paper, picked up a single-stringed instrument, and announced that he was to play a new song for the first time–for the first time for anybody outside himself, that is. He started off singing “between myself,” occasionally tapping out a jingling rhythm with his foot and strumming a reedy melody, and continued in this vein–as in, singing “between the seer and the seen,” and other such aphoristic lyrics that made philosophical havoc out of linguistic sense–for a few absolutely arresting and haunting minutes.

Unamplified and unaccompanied by anything other than the sounds he made himself, Higgs’ set became a cross between a campfire session, a fireside chat, and an out-of-body experience, and it’s invigorating to consider how rich and varied Higgs’ solo work has evolved in recent years. It feels like he only started performing solo in 2003 and 2004, and then primarily working his Jew’s harp improvisations and melodies. Since, a solo Higgs performance could include any number of stringed instruments and voice, resulting in a growing number of uncategorizable albums and a few live collaborations.

Puppy duty required me to leave about 30 minutes into his set. At least I was able to purchase a Christmasseastermass gift for myself before heading out.

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