The Cathedral and the Basement: Two Congregations Worship Sound at Magma

Look over the playlists for Hollow Earth Radio — the online radio station run out of an attic space in Wallingford — and you'll likely pick up on two aesthetic forces at work.

One mirrors trends within the indie blogosphere: buzz-heavy bands or familiar favorites like Animal Collective or Spoon. The other digs deeper, giving airplay to overlooked or underground musicians and artists that sometimes play less than radio-friendly material.

The curators of Magma Festival, HER’s annual fundraising event, capture that same bipolar spirit in the bands they booked for their month-long series of concerts (running through March 27). The first weekend, which I reviewed on the CAB last week, leaned more towards cult musicians, but this most recent weekend found more of the station’s signature balance. 

Saturday's showcase at Fremont Abbey Arts Center was the spotlight for firmly established acts. They sandwiched the histrionic folk of Jason Webley between Arrington De Dionyso and Sir Richard Bishop, two artists who push the boundaries of their respective fields just as much as they test the strength of their chosen instruments.

In the case of opener De Dionyso (left), this includes a wind instrument made from PVC pipes, a pair of bass clarinets and his own vocal chords. Over the course of a twenty minute set, the performer moved between these three, while a tone generator set a snare drum a-buzzing. The long droning notes and reedy tones from both De Dionyso's throat and his clarinets seemed to emanate from the core of his being. The set was served well by the warm acoustics of the Abbey, surrounding the audience in the swirl of hypnotic rumblings coming from the stage.

Webley (below), too, used the surroundings to his advantage, choosing to play without the PA for his set of sea shanty-style folk tunes. He played straight to the cheap seats with loud, brash singing, crowd-pleasing covers (a bit of "Billie Jean," plus Leonard Cohen's "The Stranger Song") mixed in with his own jaunty originals. And his stage presence was more slapstick silent-movie star than humble musician. What humility Webley did show came out when watching the closing act, Sir Richard Bishop. As the acclaimed guitarist ran through a series of fluid jazz and blues numbers, Webley sat on the floor of the Abbey, head in his hands and eyes closed, just drinking in the sound. You could hardly blame him. Bishop is one of the most brilliant and precise guitarists around, qualities that were in full flower throughout his fifty minute set. And his more playful side came to the fore during a slightly sleazy-talking blues tune and a few goofy melodic asides splashed among his solos.

Webley sat on the floor of the Abbey, head in his hands and eyes closed, just drinking in the sound.

Where the Abbey concert was a standard concert with lines of folding chairs and a rapturous audience, the show at the Healthy Times Fun Club (a below-ground venue and art space sitting on Capitol Hill) felt more like a tossed together house party, replete with food for purchase, simmering in a crock pot, and the forced intimacy that attendees find themselves engaging in when there’s simply not enough space in the room for them to get away from each other.

Most importantly, where the music on Saturday played off of themes and styles whose inspirations stretch back sometimes centuries, Sunday's fare — with one notable exception — took a more modernist approach, dipping back only as far as the late 20th century.

Opener Orcateers was a one-man hybrid of drowsy white boy hip-hop and glitchy electronica. He was followed by the throwback '90s riot grrl pop of Margy Pepper (below) and the spacious stoner psychedelia of Low Hums, a band that filled out the low and high end of their sound with some amazing cello and pedal steel playing.

The lone holdout who drew some inspiration from artists popular prior to 1960 was a young man who goes by the name Gene Pool (nee, Jon Pontrello). Armed with a guitar, banjo and a sharp singing voice, his set of lovely country and folk tunes spoke to universal experiences, from getting one's heart broken to more personal fare, such as getting lost in the woods and almost dying.

It was the kind of emotionally potent performance that will likely pull Pontrello out of the underground scene before too long. But whether the spotlight finds him or he remains a cult local favorite, he'll always find a home at Hollow Earth Radio.   

Photos by Joseph P. Traina

This weekend at MAGMA 2010: The Radio8Ball Show, hosted by Andras Jones with musical guest Karl Blau, celebrity "Skype-in" Khaela Maricich of The Blow (at Henry Art Gallery); Lesli Dalaba, Jon Zucker, Lori Goldston and Eyvind Kang (at Shafer Baillie Mansion); and Are You a Cat?, S. Funkee and Short Films by SoSpunWeSpunWest (at the In). See hollowearthradio.org for tickets and venue details.