Conquering Cows

It's long been a mystery how ancient Egyptians inscribed the inky interior corridors of the architectural wonders at Giza. Carbon readings nixed the idea of illumination by torch. Prehistoric batteries found at Middle Eastern sites fueled speculation abou t an early species of electrically energized bunnies lighting the way but another school of thought conjured a series of light-relaying mirrors. This last notion can be better used to describe the songwriting processes employed by Pal Shazar, a Woodstocker known for performances down in the Big City who played her "first proper gig" locally on Saturday, opening for the Virginia-based "rockroots" band, Genghis Angus, at Tinker Street Cafe.

Shazar, strumming a telecaster solo set, offered tunes like "Who Do You Think You Are" and "Somedays," neither of which are on her fine Shiffaroe Records release (recorded at Bearsville Studios), Woman Under the Influence. Here, her disarming and sentient explorations in twisting dark passageways of the human heart that tunnel tenaciously under the stupendous monolithic cenotaph of structured society are lit by the reflected clarification of a remote spiritual sun. Tender as a still-healing wound, Shazar's perspectives refresh the blood-letting instant of every youth's scarred-over hurt, loss, disappointment and anger in routine relationship's sacrifices to civilization; psychically sculpting the multi-facets and angles of a diamond-carved gem in pondered emotion.

The frenzied whirligig who followed Shazar to the stage made the Tasmanian Devil of Warner Brothers cartoon fame look sluggish and then had the affrontry to throw in a couple of snail jokes as he swept the audience off their chairs and into one awe-and-hilarity-convulsed ball. If you're anything less than an utterly lethal act, you're better off trying to outtalk Farrell-On-the-Bench or out scream Junior On Drugs than follow Hamill On Trial on a playbill. His supercharged, galvanized acoustic licks, tale-spinning, corner-turning tunes and chromium-cutting humor devastated the crowd, leaving them limp for the headliners; treating any sense of progressive continuity in the evening with the distant piety of the misogynistic Schopenhauer when he wrote of prostitutes as "human sacrifices on the altar of monogamy."

With the ambitious winter schedule of the Cafe packing talent into thick, variously spiced but serially linked sausage components of interdependent time gulps, it's impossible to separate an evening's gestalt into isolations on particular artists and still give an adequate sense of their performance. Yet, the czar's directive on this assignment, should I choose to scale its slippery sides, was a focus specifically upon the group that faced that steeply uphill climb after the Mercury Records artist/mad man from Brooklyn-via-Austin-via-Syracuse wrung out the crowd. Both preceding acts deserve much more than the fleeting mention they receive here to set up an audience for Genghis Angus, so we must assume that full spotlights on their respective talents sh ould be spoken of in the future tense.

Courageously into the gap they plowed, this quartet of gliding ballads, locked harmonies and bumper stickers. Stylistically duplex, Genghis Angus straddle the sparely country-folk approach that the band America too often made sound insipid and the kin d gut rock many bands fling too raggedly. Looking for a happy medium, these herders sometimes try to ride both ways at once. The band goes back to some cow-poking they did to pay the rent in the early days but Virginia isn't exactly on the range and neith er is their sound.

Lead singer and songwriter Allen Kitselman is the group's foundation, picking his way between the obvious and the obtuse with tunes like "Honor Road," which kicks off their 12 Days CD (released in January by Adrenochrome Records). The song of pale-l ipped disillusionment is addressed nonspecifically to a record company, although one might assume that either the defunct Midnight Fantasy label, which released their 1995 Echo Park CD or Edge of Hell Music, which put out a 1996 EP, might identify with those lines about "cold fluorescent office hours spent (to) craft instruments of pure fool's gold."

Kitselman and drummer Jim Ball go back to their days at Virginia Tech, which may explain the unneeded prominence of traps on a strain of songs where Allen achieves the nacre polish of a Lowen and Navaro harmony with lead guitarist Gary Smallwood. Bass player Conrad St.Clair is just dandy and wholly with it, whichever fork the music takes.

Kitselman is also an architect and one of his more interesting themes treated the demolition of a house that had belonged to his wife's family. Behind a cupboard wall was found an inscription by an ancestor in 1830 which triggered "Dust of Progress." He introduced "Rusting Bridges" as a song about the country's rotting infrastructure but it came across as a road song of another kind; "Little boy with the curly hair/brown eyes, got his mama's stare/they both sleep alone tonight/and the three of us kno w that ain't right." But the pull of "can't leave this damn place/fast enough to know I can" is pushed by the "tired of feeling guilty about my music/if you can't just let me be/then you'll have to get the hell away from me" in another song.

The club atmosphere let the ballads breath above the basic drum clumps better than on disk and where the wilder numbers suffer studio shorthand, Smallwood was able to cut loose and stretch out on some slick runs through the meadow grass- all of which helped the gather the room's scattered energies back into a form of their own. By the time they got to the raunchy "Rooster," Kitselman's vocals were growling and purring and the Can't Stand Still folks were finally swaying and dancing. It took a while but in the end, Genghis Angus captured the fort.

-Irv Yarg