Jenny Scheinman is tall. Not a very nuanced observation, but it’s important to note. In a stage light on clutter and gear, her commanding longitudinal presence was the audience’s first impression of her and her band, Mischief & Mayhem. Her stark, wildly curling hair bounced with each tuning stroke of her violin while guitarist (and latter-day Wilco axeman) Nels Cline fired up a feedback-laced warm-up chord. Like a magician setting up a fine trick, the ensemble, filled out by bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Jim Black, turned this ambient, droning start into a parabolic musical odyssey. In an evening filled with furious musicianship, jaw dropping solos and gee whiz percussive gimmickry, the primordial evolution of the opening piece was a fitting analogy of the band’s succeeding songs.
I doubt the experiment would have been as successful without Cline, whose alt-country roots and sonic adventurousness seemed to be shot through the Large Hadron Collider, smashing into each other and forming wholly new elements. I can honestly say that I’d never heard anything quite like it. His ambient scrawl was reminiscent of Experimental Audio Research. It reminded me of Doctor Who background music. I half expected the Tardis to appear onstage. When coupled with Scheinman’s finite tremolo work, though, the dynamic changed from abstract to immediate. She brought a sense of urgency and direction to the affair, reigning over the collective with a stage director’s precise timing and focus. Her quick signature and timing changes held a hold over the audience, while Cline’s exacting, rolling solos lit their seats on fire.
The set list provided a number of breathers. The third track, an homage to PJ Harvey, abandoned the titular namesake’s acid-edged approach in favor of fleet-footed atmosphere. It was Scheinman’s track through and through, with Cline adding aural sonics that sounded like submarine ‘pings’ going off in zero gravity. The group followed this with a twisted, rhythmic percussive piece that was, dare I say, a bit depraved. It was a sinister rockabilly piece that felt as if someone had dropped acid in the band’s moonshine and things were taking a turn.
While the focus was, for the most part, on Scheinman and Cline’s immaculate playing, drummer Jim Black was a wunderkind. Have you ever seen a circus performer keep pulling curios and prop gags out of his coat? This was exactly what he looked like. He held a stick in his left hand while his right kept reaching down and grabbing something new. I half expected him to start juggling while keeping pace.
The set’s cohesiveness revolved around minor chord turns and genre-bending trials. Morose funeral dirges gave way to experiment within experiment tracks, most notably on the sixth tune, a number that conjured flashbacks of Captain Beefheart. Cline yet again established his presence, responding to Scheinman’s pristinely fluid string shudders with pounding chord work.
Overall, the ensemble work was expectional. Scheinman’s guiding hand over the affair allowed Cline’s virtuosic playing to shine through without losing focus of the other players. The incorporations of continually deconstructing ambient pedal loops only made the songs that much more powerful. What struck me about the show was the auditory ambience that swept through the McGuire. I could never quite place the feeling, but felt I’d been there before. It was as if I was reminiscing about something I’d never experienced, which is what I would call a huge success.