All Photos in this essay by Bob Doran, some, like this one are stills from his video Medicine Baul Live at Bummer Fest 2012. Other pics from his Medicine Baul photo album on facebook
Amazing! Astounding! Wonderful! Wow! Wow! Wow! If you read this column regularly, you know that I’m a cynical old coot who loves to make fun of people. Not today (sorry to disappoint you). Today I feel rejuvenated, recharged and re-energized, because last night I experienced Medicine Baul live at Jambalaya in Arcata.
Medicine Baul played inspiring, original music. When I say “original” music, I don’t just mean that they write their own songs, I mean that they don’t do anything normal. Medicine Baul didn’t even play anything you could call a song. Instead, we heard one continuous, collaborative, improvised composition that spanned the duration of their set.
They had some normal instruments, like a concert bass drum, a trombone and a hammered dulcimer, but Medicine Baul didn’t play anything normal on them. They had some decidedly abnormal instruments, like a homemade, cello-sized, one string instrument, a mouth harp and an electric hurdy-gurdy. They didn’t do anything normal with those instruments either. They hit things. They plucked strings. They held twisted brass tubes and other strange devices to their lips, and they fiddled with many contraptions too small to see clearly from the audience. They produced a great variety of weird noises.
At the center of all of this instrumental madness, one tall slender dark-haired woman of artistic demeanor, not brassy, not seductive, but serious, concentrated, reserved, but with a playful glint in her eye, stood alone in front of the microphone at center stage in a long striped indigo dress. Her vocalizations, sometimes soaring and melodic, other times dark and guttural contained no discernible lyrics. Flanked stage left by by a man wearing coveralls, knee-pads and a hardhat, crouching low to the floor amid a pile of instruments, and on stage right by a seated man wearing a red flannel union suit playing what looked like a hillbilly cello, Medicine Baul looked positively surreal.
Projected on a screen behind Medicine Baul as they played, scenes from documentary films, probably made in the 1970s by the look of the film, depicted life in remote tribal villages. The images began with people navigating white-water rapids in dugout canoes while standing up, each using a single pole to steer and control their tiny boats. The music began as a low murmur, crescendoed to a mighty din, climaxed in a cathartic release of energy and concluded as peacefully as it began. Medicine Baul both defied and exceeded expectations with their spontaneous composition.
Medicine Baul has at least six members. I find it hard to count higher than that, but there were a lot of people up on that rather cramped stage, and they all had something to do, pretty much all the time. Clearly, they all listen to each other. I don’t think anyone would say, of Medicine Baul, that they were fantastically talented players, because none of them were show-offs, and they did not play music for show-offs. Instead I will say say that Medicine Baul is made of fantastically talented listeners, and that together they compose brilliant original music.
You really should experience them for yourself. You will have a chance to do that on November 3. Medicine Baul will perform in Eureka on Monday, November 3, at Siren’s Song, along with Willoughby, starting at 8:00pm. We’ve already planned our next Eureka trip around it, and so should you.
We have an obscene amount of music shows here in Humboldt County, and most of them them are more party than concert and involve music drawn from well-trodden, commercially proven, genres. That doesn’t interest me. I want to hear something original, and I like it that much more when the artists have the guts to challenge the audience’s expectations rather than pander to them. That’s what makes music interesting. That’s what makes music powerful, and that’s what keeps music alive.
Art matters! Parties, not so much. We need original art now, more than ever, because at the core of our current cultural collapse lies a colossal failure of imagination. It’s going to take a lot of imagination to reinvent the future. Original art is to imagination what business is to money. An abundance of art promotes a wealth of imagination. Medicine Baul is a perfect example of what I mean by “original,” and listening to them could change the way you think about music.