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On the Other Side of the Pulpit with Lonnie Holley

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Lonnie Holley performing with Bradford Cox (drums) and Marshall Ruffin (guitar), at Eddie's Attic, Decatur, Georgia, January 2, 2014.
Lonnie Holley performing with Bradford Cox (drums) and Marshall Ruffin (guitar), at Eddie’s Attic, Decatur, Georgia, January 2, 2014. (Photo: Carl Rojas)

Greeting Lonnie Holley at Eddie’s Attic before his show on January 2, we shake hands; he instructs me to shake with my thumb up, matching his, and then proclaims, “thumbs up for Mother Universe.” He continues, “You know, I’ve been trying to write a song for Mother Universe for a long time, but I haven’t found it yet.” Holley is one of the best-kept secrets in the Atlanta music scene.

The F Word at Hunter Museum

In December, Holley’s Keeping a Record of It made a number of Top 10 music lists for 2013, including the Washington Post’s, which placed it fourth, and the Chicago Sun-Times, whose music critic Mark Guarino named it the second-best album of 2013, after Kanye West’s Yeezus. I ask Lonnie his thoughts on being number two to Kanye. He replies, “It’s an elevator.” Holley has been playing to increasingly larger crowds (in Europe no less). He also had a solo gallery show at James Fuentes in New York (September 11–October 6, 2013), where he integrated his live music with his visual art for an evening performance. This month, Holley is in Florida for an invitation-only residency at the Rauschenberg Foundation, and in April he’ll do a 10-day residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

This is the express elevator.

Holley’s performance at Eddie’s Attic was a musical treat, an initiation into the musical styling of the noted artist. For Holley, it was finally a chance to play the nationally known local venue. His music borrows stylistically and thematically from his visual art—improvisation with whatever and whomever is around. You get the feeling that if you gave him a tire and a stick he would write a song. He invites us into his psyche, and then takes us on a fantastic ride.

The show started with just Holley and his keyboard. I’m digging it—wondering how much of what he is playing is a “song” and how much is improvisation. I hear references to his travels in Europe with Matt Arnett, a tireless supporter, confidante, and manager he has known for more than 20 years. Arnett says that one of the most intriguing things about Lonnie’s shows is that no two are the same. It makes sense, given that the list of people he has played with reads like a who’s who of alt rock—among them, Richard Swift of the Shins and violinist Gillian Rivers (who has played with such bands as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and MGMT). Local favorites Deerhunter and the Black Lips have been recurring sources of talent and energy.

Installation view of Lonnie Holley's show "Keeping You Out of Harm's Way," 2013, at James Fuentes, New York.
Installation view of Lonnie Holley’s show “Keeping You Out of Harm’s Way,” 2013, at James Fuentes, New York.

Halfway into Holley’s set, things got really interesting. Bradford Cox (guitarist for Deerhunter) and Marshall Ruffin (local blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist) joined him on stage. And there began a new depth of sound, an added layer of improvisation that took me from casual listener to attentive student. Cox’s drumming gave Holley an anchor that he and Ruffin began to weave in and out of with ease and delight. There was something inherently, satisfyingly edgy created by the collision of Holley’s world with those of two younger musicians from very different genres. Yet the three of them seemed completely natural; Cox has a stream-of-consciousness style that was in sync with Holley’s own, and Ruffin’s playing was clean and smooth—both additive, not disruptive.

Georgia Museum of Art

Unsurprisingly, Holley is a music omnivore. A variety of influences can be heard in his music, so it’s easy to see why each performance takes a different twist, depending on whether Holley is playing alone or accompanied. Birmingham artist Hunter Bell joined the trio for the final song and encore. He brought a synthesizer and a modified tape player to the mix. The dissonant sounds he produced were made by distorting, with a Korg synthesizer, a recorded speech Holley made at the Birmingham Spoken Word Festival in 1996.

Look for announcements about Holley’s 2014 shows, and giddy up to one, because some night Lonnie Holley is going to play that song for Mother Universe, and you’ll want to be there.

A video of Lonnie Holley’s performance can be seen here. Upcoming performances include March 7 at the Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, with the Black Lips and Deerhunter; March 13 at the University of Alabama; March 29-30, the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN.

Carl Rojas is a new contributor to BURNAWAY. A reformed philosopher, he looks forward to sharing his informed and critical observations with the Southeast’s visual arts community. (He is also very happily married to the editor of BURNAWAY.)