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Jandek in Irvine: A mysterious musician makes his first Southern California appearance

January 10, 2011 | 11:17 am

One can imagine the directive that the singer, songwriter and mysterious warbler who may or may not be "Jandek" gave to his two backing musicians at Irvine on Saturday night: "Just start playing -- hard and loud." At his first-ever Southern California appearance, the man -- generally accepted to be a Houston musician by the name of Sterling Smith but never confirmed by him -- appeared in all black, wearing a flat-brimmed black hat, playing a black electric guitar, and backed by bassist Mike Watt and drummer BJ Miller of the L.A. noise band HEALTH. Over the next 75 minutes, the three improvised one long song.

The backstory: for the past 33 years, a company called Corwood Industries out of Houston has been releasing oddly magnetic, out-of-time recordings by an artist named Jandek. Since that first record, "Ready for the House" (1978), the records have come at a shockingly steady clip: 60 albums that range from atmospheric guitar and voice songs to meandering, free-floating jams. The artist uses odd guitar tunings, and seldom abides by accepted song structures. Most of the photos on the covers of these full-lengths feature some sort of snapshot of a skinny, handsome man at different ages. Some are in black and white, others are in color, some are out of focus, others are razor sharp.

This is the man who appeared at the Crystal Cove Auditorium on the campus of UC Irvine on Saturday night after being invited to perform by promoters Acrobatics Everyday. He has never confirmed that he is or isn't Jandek. He normally requests that his appearance be billed as one by "a representative of Corwood Industries."

5340209498_2fd1a71cb0_z The Artist Understood to be Jandek has loosened his rules since his first-ever concert appearance in 2004; Saturday night's performance was billed as a concert by Jandek, and to the few hundred people in attendance, his arrival had the feel of a historical moment (even if, in record sales terms, Jandek's work is so far underground that he's totally off the grid).

So: At about 8:15 p.m., bassist Watt, best known for his work with seminal bands such as Minutemen and the Stooges, and shockingly hard-hitting and dynamic drummer Miller, walked onstage, followed shortly thereafter by said representative of Corwood Industries. The man didn't acknowledge the crowd, didn't smile. He strapped on his guitar, and for the next hour-plus the fans got an extended piece that was only interrupted by a brief pause when Miller broke the head on his snare drum.

For the first 15 minutes, the guitarist kept his back mostly to the crowd as he scraped out electric bursts, angular solos and random noises. Miller and Watt got into a groove that moved steadily and confidently; at times it suggested the Motorik rhythm of German krautrock -- Watt dove into a bassline referencing Can's "Father Cannot Yell" at one point -- at others it had the feel of an Albert Ayler free jazz explosion. It was rough, difficult and thoroughly engaging.

As the band dove deeper into the sound, the guitarist finally stepped up to the microphone, and we saw his face: fair-skinned, steely-eyed and intense. He sang/spoke a few lines: "She didn't lie. She only told the truth," he said as the band continued with the groove. Later, as the hour point arrived, he sang again: "It's all an accident, yeah I know/An accident, yeah I know." He continued, "There was a plan, and then there was an accident." At one point during the night he might have played a tonal chord, but for the most part the guitarist strayed so far away from Western tuning that the sound felt otherworldly.

Mysterious? Certainly. The whole night was. But then, that's mystique for you. If nothing else, the artist known as Jandek has, over the past three decades, mastered the art of building an aura that would have made J.D. Salinger proud. That he's so withdrawn certainly adds to his allure. But as Saturday night proved, the mystery only added to the gestalt of the sound. One man -- whoever or whatever he was -- conjuring the spirit of music.

-- Randall Roberts

Top photo (from left): Mike Watt, BJ Miller and the artist known as Jandek at UC Irvine. Credit: Paul Rosales.

Bottom photo: The artist known as Jandek. Credit: Paul Rosales.