Photo: Geert Vandepoele
Formed in 1988, San Francisco’s Oxbow might just be one of the underground’s best-kept secrets. Their blend of punk, noise rock, avant-blues, and downright unpredictability have made them one of the most incendiary bands on both live and on record. Their latest, An Eternal Reminder of Not Today: Live at Moers, out now on the Trost and Sleeping Giant Glossolalia labels, gives the listener the best of both worlds. And to top it off, this performance features free improv’s fiery godfather Peter Brötzmann on saxophone throughout its entirety.
The set list includes songs covering the entire breadth of Oxbow’s discography. They kick things off with the one-two punch of “Angel” and “Cat and Mouse,” both from 1991’s King of the Jews. “Angel,” which featured Lydia Lunch on the original recording, is an odd way to start a concert, with its languid tempo, but it proves great fodder for Brötzmann.
Niko Wenner‘s slide guitar slithers in but bassist Dan Adams and drummer Greg Davis don’t take the bait. They hold back on the beat until Eugene Robinson enters with an understated vocal. Brötzmann then comes in with one of the bluesiest lines he’s ever played, and instantly the ensemble has created an atmosphere worthy of any episode of True Detective. It’s hard to tell if Robinson and Brötzmann concoct the perfect surrealist punk-blues moment, or if the genius is in how the rest of the band reacts underneath them. This sounds like John Lee Hooker and Raymond Chandler writing an opera and somehow becoming more than the sum of their parts.
“Cat and Mouse” flips the script with crushing noise-rock as dramatic as it is unpredictable. Imagine Craw jamming with John Zorn, or more fairly Brötzmann, as he is incomparable in the realm of free saxophone work. Here Robinson approaches the unhinged. When he intones “muscular throb, throb, throb…I scream,” it is Oxbow at their most Oxbow: sexual, primal and with an undertone of violence. But the way the whole piece works together, from bass, drums and guitar to vocals and saxophone, it’s a perfect moment. This is the band displaying complete mastery over spontaneous creation.
Eugene Robinson is as much a thespian as he is a singer. He plays roles, or better yet, is possessed by various characters. “Skin,” from 2002’s An Evil Heat, finds him invoking his lines like a fire and brimstone preacher overflowing with hidden vice, while “A Gentleman’s Gentleman” from 2017’s Thin Black Duke slots him into the role of a grizzled gangster, perhaps one that is mentally a bit worse for wear.
Peter Brötzmann, for his part, is the perfect foil for all the theatrics. While he is often bluesier than usual, he pours on the strum und drang often and with great effect. His playing at the beginning of “Over” seems like a melodic line reaching for escape velocity but never finding release. Set closer “The Valley” sees him ascending to a new level of release, though it is unclear if this apotheosis is achieved via the spirit or the flesh.
Oxbow collaborating with Peter Brötzmann is probably not something anyone saw coming, but it makes sense as soon as you hear it. And upon listening for the first time, this album delivers on every level. Brötzmann matches Robinson’s theatrics and deepens their impact. This is an ecstatic experience, a rite of possession, and one wonders what Oxbow will do next. How can they top this, when Peter Brötzmann is gone? I, for one, am game to find out.