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Oxbow & Peter Brötzmann
An Eternal Reminder Of Not Today: Live At Moers Bernie Brooks , October 21st, 2022 09:21

Oxbow and Peter Brötzmann come together like peanut butter and jelly for a nightmare soul revue, says Bernie Brooks

One thing you learn flogging records is, some albums sell themselves. All you gotta do is put them out on the shelf. Maybe the artist behind it has a certain broad, obvious appeal, or conversely, maybe they don't. And maybe that’s a good thing. These records are niche prospects, but are, crucially, by artists who’ve found their niche – and their comparatively small but dedicated fanbase. These are records that, while maybe not printed up in the hundreds of thousands – or even in the thousands – nevertheless sell. The fans emerge from the woodwork, feelers twitching. Long-running San Francisco noise-blues malcontents Oxbow are one of those niche acts. Octogenarian savior of skronk, hero of honk, jazz saxophonist-slash-clarinetist Peter Brötzmann is another. So, I suppose it goes without saying that An Eternal Reminder Of Not Today: Live At Moers – an extraordinary document of a fruitful collision between Oxbow and Brötzmann at the Moers Festival in 2018 – is probably one of those LPs that sells itself.

It’s also one of those instances where reviewing this thing seems almost silly. It’s hard to imagine a sixty-plus minute collaborative set being anyone’s first experience with either Brötz or ‘Bow. Besides this, Oxbow have released seven long-players and two live recordings over the course of 34 years. Brötzmann’s discography, nearly sixty years deep, is almost uncountable. That said, most people in the know enough to know Oxbow and / or Brötzmann know enough to know whether or not they like Oxbow and / or Brötzmann. Me, I’m not gonna convince anyone who isn’t into either of these artists that they should listen to this. If you don’t like Oxbow, this one isn’t for you. Ditto if you’re anti-Brötz. I’m just here to leave my mark on the metaphorical record, and for the record, here’s what I have to say: If you like Brötzmann or Oxbow, you will love the shit out of this LP.

For real, whoever booked this set, however it came about, deserves a spot in festival-organiser Valhalla. This is a chocolate and peanut butter situation, a match made in heaven. There’s a strange alchemy to Oxbow, after all these years together. Magnetic frontman Eugene S. Robinson, guitarist Niko Wenner, bassist Dan Adams, and drummer Greg Davis manage to conjure up a sound that’s both elegant and punch drunk, suave and staggering, debonair and debauched. Robinson is in complete control of his instrument, whipping conspiratorial whispers into pained howls and back again. Somehow both measured and bombastic, Oxbow have an almost uncanny ability to leave exactly the right space at exactly the right time so Brötzmann can do his thing. And let me tell you, friends, he honks.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my love of jazz is an unstudied one. I like what I like, and I’m confident enough in my ear to know what I’m hearing is good, but I couldn’t tell you why it's good – at least technically speaking. Basically, I’m an enthusiastic dullard, the Captain Caveman of jazz fandom. So, instead of, say, doing actual research, I asked noted sax man / Brötz enthusiast Christopher Duffin (XAM Duo, Holodrum, Drahla, creator of the phenomenal solo record Helicopter) what it is about Brötzmann that makes his honks so good. Take it away, Chris:

“Brötzmann stands apart for so many mainly on the strength of his timbre I think – such a gruff tone but his vibrato sounds so vulnerable. His sound is wildly powerful. If you’re ever in a room with him, it’s hard to believe that sound is coming from him. I saw him in like 2019 and he can still have the enamel off your teeth. Also, that sound of his means something, which is why it sounds authentic – sick of Nazis, worried about the Vietnam war, shame of the previous generation, etc. He’s said he was just getting it all out. I also think the fact he’s a painter informs his sound a lot too. He never plays in long phrases always in short brushstrokes… But mainly I just agree with you. Brötz honks so fucking good. Love him to bits."

And that’s it exactly. You can hear it. But here’s the other thing: Everyone on that stage in 2018 was painting, not just Brötz. Jabbing, slashing at the same canvas from start to finish, from soup to nuts. I’ve always thought of Oxbow as a literary sort of band, in the same way characters like Richard Hell or whoever are thought of as literary. This is down to Robinson’s brilliant way with words and his rep as a writer, more than anything. But here, that’d be wrong. They’re painters working in unison with Brötzmann, each adding a colour that compliments the others’. No mud-grey palettes in this nightmare soul revue.

My favourite live recording of all time is a manic eight-minute cover version of ‘Funhouse’ from The Birthday Party’s Live 81–82. If you haven’t heard it, do a Google search. It’s nuts. Anyway, I first heard it, I think, shortly after it came out in 1999. It was the first Birthday Party album I ever heard. ‘Funhouse’ was the last number on it. That track did something to my brain, and it’s coloured my expectations for live ‘rock’ records ever since. There’s a nearly feral energy there that very few recordings can match. Oxbow and Brötzmann match it here on every single track, in one way or another. In a sense, that’s the highest praise I can give.

Earlier, I wrote that it seems unlikely that this recording will be anyone’s first dance with Oxbow or Brötzmann, and while that’s probably true, that’d be a shame. For me, this is definitive Oxbow, with the potential to work the same magic on an unfamiliar, unsuspecting noise rock fan as that Birthday Party record worked on me. Instantaneous fandom. And while it is uncompromising, Live At Moers provides an easier inlet into Brötzmann’s world. From here, his catalogue is a tremendously vast and rewarding territory to explore, for those that want to explore it. And I’d like to think first-timers will – or would anyway.

There’s always that thing about deep histories, deep discographies being intimidating, acting as barriers of entry. But, if somehow you’ve come across this review having never heard Oxbow nor Brötzmann, my advice to you is, don’t let yourself be intimidated or put off – dive in! We’re living in an era of cornucopian abundance when it comes to noise rock, with newly minted records by the likes of Grave Goods, Meat Wave, Gilla Band, and more lining the shelves. Any of that stuff get you going? Well then, give this one a shot, because (if you’ll allow me to ever-so-slightly amend my earlier assessment): If you like noise rock at all, you will love the shit out of Live At Moers.