Uncle Woody Sullender

Nothing Is Certain But Death

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Uncle Woody Sullender tosses a bit of a curve ball, or perhaps a curved banjo, at a listening audience quick to associate certain kinds of stage names with certain kinds of music. An Uncle Woody, with a banjo on the cover of his CD, would seem to be an old-time music guy. If the man behind the solo banjo outing Nothing Is Certain But Death is an old-time guy, he is an old-time guy being led off his property by a posse. That's the immediate visual image inspired by the opening "Commonwealth Edison," a tense and agitated scratching at the edges of an instrument that had already been compared for delicacy's sake to a motorcycle, a Second World War bombing raid, and the threat of brain surgery, sometimes in the context of a distinct genre of banjo jokes, all well before Sullender got his hands on one. By the second track, "I Am in a Consumption," the banjoist has identified himself as a new experimenter from the Chicago avant-garde scene, he is back on his own property, the posse is gone, and he is trying to get his foot into a shoe, stubbornly sure one more push will do and most likely wisely planted in this mindset. Cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm joins in, one of three appearances in the program by guest collaborators. A casual listener dropping by doesn't notice that it is now a duet, a factor one educated critic of free improvisation suggested should be mentioned in all cases, no matter what the circumstances. The presence of electronic manipulation becomes first apparent on "Sallie Goodman Breakdown," a piece with an ironically traditional-sounding title. The irony continues in what is delivered through the actual sound of the performance. No mild-sounding description could fully capture the shock with which an audience not expecting electronics might react, so total is the change in the CD's ambience once this track starts off. Like many other great musical moments, it creates a certain amount of anxiety regarding the possibility of equipment being broken. In general it is the listener's equipment being referred to, but in the case of "Aphelion Counting," in which Sullender's banjo-tronics are joined by another electronics performer, it sounds like the performer's axe is badly out of whack. Sections of these performances actually do manage to sound more old-timey than the pure banjo material, distorted pitches melding together into the sort of fuzzbox fiddle effect associated with North Carolina's Henry Flynt. Wisely, Sullender's program continues to develop different outlooks. Near the end, "Don't Say Goodbye Til I'm in Chicago" displays melodic invention at a relaxed pace. The concluding "Papa, Help Me Across" flits through a stylistic montage before ending abruptly.

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