We're slogging through the final week of 2019, but already I just may have heard the best local album of 2020.
The official release date for the new, self-titled album by Seth Faergolzia's Multibird is Jan. 1, but you can get a few hours' head start at the official release show at 8 p.m. New Year's Eve at Skylark Lounge.
The prolific Faergolzia assembled Multibird from the cosmic silt of his previous bands, Dufus and 23 Psaegz, the latter born of his desire to create a soundtrack for his puppet opera and accompanying film, "Moon Shaped Head Girl."
While 23 Psaegz would sometimes soar to 19 musicians onstage, his solo performance at the 2017 Rochester Fringe Festival consisted of Faergolzia standing at an easel and creating an abstract painting, while looping vocals through a foot pedal.
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So yes, Faergolzia is a musician and experimental video artist and painter and crafter of giant puppets and junk sculptor and herder of instrument-bearing cats. And he sometimes makes his own clothes. All of this does scream eccentric, but Faergolzia seems to have enough old-soul bones to properly carry the load.
In the late '90s and into the early 2000s, Faergolzia was part of the New York City antifolk crowd. Kind people, he says, playing acoustic-based music, but not folk music. More like punk. And he fell in with the right people at open mic nights, bands such as The Moldy Peaches.
"I didn't have like a huge following or anything," he says. "But I had a handful of people who said, 'Hey, come play in my small city in Germany,' or, 'Come play in England.' "
No problem. Faergolzia is loosely tethered to this world.
"I was working for this vegan eatery, being a bike-delivery guy," he says. "And it was a decent job, I got good food and I biked around all day, so I was getting good exercise. And I was whistling most of the time."
He demonstrates, and is indeed pretty good at whistling.
"Anyway, I actually delivered to Joey Ramone a couple of times. That was pretty cool. His place was pretty messy, his money was all in crumpled bills, like he had to search around in different pockets in different pairs of jeans. I handed him a CD once, he was just, like, 'Uh… thanks,' I never heard anything from that."
As rewarding as feeding one of The Ramones can be, Faergolzia was approaching a life epiphany. "I was, like, is this who I am?" he says. "Is this my life? It didn't feel like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I felt like I had a calling to be making music, so I decided to follow that belief and I swore not to get another job. And I survived."
Survival is a relative measurement. In Faergolzia's case, it meant, "I just kind bounced around a bunch, and lived in different squalor, different kinds of spaces," until he ended up living for free as a squatter in an abandoned building.
"There was no running water past the first floor, one legit toilet and one legit shower in the whole building of, I think, 20 apartments. It was dirty, no heat, stolen electricity." The lone toilet was on the other side of a thin sheetrock wall, and it wasn't hooked up to a water line. So it didn't flush, and Faergolzia and his girlfriend could tell when it was just about full. But, "It was literally the last free place I've ever lived, I didn't have to pay a dime. I spent a lot of time developing my voice, I sang all day."
Eventually Faergolzia moved on to a more sanitary bathroom situation in Ithaca, and then settled in Rochester in 2007 to be with his daughter. "After I moved to Rochester, my stuff got a lot more country sounding," he says. "I feel I'm just kind of a product of my environment. Where I am influences what I create."
Multibird emerged as the house band for Faergolzia's dream/obsession to write 100 songs in a four-month period. Which he did, eventually recording 50 of the most worthy.
Touring is a big part of this. By his count, Faergolzia's various projects have touched down in more than 20 countries. After a Jan. 4 show in Naples, Multibird heads off to Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, France, Austria and more Germany, Germany and Germany.
Today's Multibird includes guitarist and foot percussionist Shaun Jones, Emily DiPaola on percussion and trumpet, and Luke Cornwell on bass and keyboards. The new album comes with a video for the song "Landscaper." It's a righteous picture of the Faergolzia ethic of found sound, with the musicians playing percussion dangling from tree limbs and banging on 55-gallon drums as Faergolzia engages in some manic yammering and scat singing: "I'm just a landscaper!"
Whatever that means, it doesn't matter. His songs are what he calls a "stream of consciousness method, I prefer to be in a sort of dream state when I'm writing… To me, it's always about making the sound rather than the concept. I try not to conceptualize too much, and that's why a lot of my lyrics don't end up making literal sense."
Adjectives can't keep up with Multibird's expansive sonic palette. The unrestrained, energetic "Riot" opens with carefree whistling. "Weirdly Weathered" is ominous distortion guitar, evolving into a hillbilly, Celtic hoedown. Faergolzia's elastic vocals range from cartoony staccato to ominous Nick Cave. As Faergolzia goes to sleep on a bus he pleads, "If I fall asleep, don't wake me up." He grows cynical on "Video Games With Real Guns," about downloading a photo that goes viral and noting, "Thousands will pretend they care, your pain and grief will make you famous, but you're still standing there, dust collecting in your hair." A circus atmosphere overtakes "Wander." Is that a tuba solo? He pays tribute to his puppet friends on the light cabaret of "Hand Up Its Butt," and seems to be surrounded by strange creatures making noise during "Yup's Birthday."
"Rubberbands" is high-speed bluegrass. "Oh, no, something's up ahead, don't go, pull the brake instead," Faergolzia sings as he takes us on a high-speed railroad ride. "We're gonna end up dead." He explains the dream state behind that one: "You see this huge rubber band that's stretched across the track, held onto two trees, and the train hits that rubber band and goes backwards, and you look back and there's another rubber band behind you, and you hit that and you go forward. So basically the train just bounces back and forth and back and forth."
The album's instrumentation ranges back and forth between clatter and rhythm. That's the Tom Waits influence. Faergolzia has gone there before, using the rattling and clanging of pots as the primary percussion on his album "Pip."
"Kind of an obscure one," he says, unnecessarily. They all are, in the best sense of obscurity.
The New Year's Eve show at Skylark Lounge, 40 S. Union St., starts at 8 p.m. with a Multibird listening party (with free pickles!), followed by Hayley Dayis, Paxor and Multibird at 10:45 p.m.
Richard Thompson Songbook
This seems to be tribute season in Rochester. The next musician to get the treatment from local musicians is perhaps lesser known than Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, but no less worthy: Richard Thompson, 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 28, at Abilene Bar & Lounge, 153 Liberty Pole Way. Thompson first emerged as a member of the ultra-important English folk band Fairport Convention, and has since produced a catalog of stunning beauty. The Richard Thompson Songbook Band is Adam Wilcox, Dan Ward, David Bretz, John Kelley and Steve Piper, plus special guests. The bulk of the show will be drawn from Thompson's earlier period, so let's hope for " I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight," "Tear-Stained Letter," "Dimming of the Day" and the perfect motorcycle crime drama, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."
That show is free, but what follows at 9:30 p.m. should be interesting: The return of Spooky & the Truth, with a new album whose title gives away the game: "City Folk." Like The Band's "Music From Big Pink," if Big Pink were an apartment building in Pittsburgh. Tickets ($10 advance, $15 the day of the show) are available at the club and at abilenebarandlounge.com.
Kwanzaa at the MAG
As Delores Jackson Radney looks at Black Art, she sees how, "All social issues, especially for African-American artists, are always present in the work itself."
Radney is one of the Kwanzaa Celebration speakers Sunday, Dec. 29, at the Memorial Art Gallery, 500 University Ave. It begins at 5:30 p.m. with the opportunity to meet artists Paulette Davis, Mattie Alleyne, Frances Hare, Hakim Hudson, Sherry Davis, Dewayne James, Yadquib Shabazz, Richmond Futch, Omobowale Ayorinde and Athesia Benjamin. That's followed in quick succession by Radney's talk on the history of Black Art.
Ayorinde will speak about the Black Arts Movement of 1965-'75, an important driver of art, literature and activism. And David and Gaya Shakes, Luvon Sheppard and Terry Chaka will discuss collecting and investing in Black Art.
In exploring Black Arts, Radney finds many layers. Most of these groups, such as New York City's Black Arts Movement, were not limited to painting. "Absolutely, it was a whole arts movement," Radney says. "So there was literature, there was theater, there was music, and then also the painting." The paintings, she says, "were probably the thing we know the least about in general. We read the people, we read our literary artists, we listen to our music, so this is kind of the unknown for most people in terms of culture."
The MAG collection has examples of some of these works. Jacob Lawrence's series of 22 prints telling the story of abolitionist John Brown. And Kehinde Wiley, best known for his portrait of President Barack Obama that hangs in the Smithsonian. Wiley's work typically fuses contemporary street subjects and Renaissance-era surroundings; the MAG's Wiley piece is called "After Memling's Portrait of a Man with a Letter."
Also to be considered is the Graffiti Arts Movement, encompassing black and Latino artists, Radney says, which in turn evolved into "kind of a public art movement, especially here, when they started doing wall therapy around town."
The celebration should wrap up at about 8 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $5 per group.
Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.