Susan Alcorn

The Big Top

July 11, 2005

First, thanks goes out to Rob Cambre, whose Anxious Sound name has brought many noise, free associative, and Jazz artists to New Orleans. I and many other people wouldn't have known about these talented artists if it wasn't for his knowledge of the underground.

On Monday night at The Big Top, Anxious Sound presented Austin pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. She has been playing the instrument for thirty years, and after playing in Country and Jazz bands, she has developed an exploratory mix of both genres to transmit her longing, sympathy, and melancholy.

Alcorn went on musical freak-outs every once and a while. They were free-associating, let-the variable-run-amok moments. There was uncertainty in every single note that came out of these noise excursions, but Alcorn knew what kind of moods she wanted to present: anger from sadness, anxiety, and fear. Her pedal steel guitar manifested the sound of nervous breakdowns, car crashes, and deaths. She created these circumstances by feverishly running her steel bar back and forth over and under multiple strings at once. She also did it by quickly popping a string with the end of the bar for a sharp sound of silver and steel. The most interesting instance was when she plopped the steel bar perpendicular on the strings, letting it ride there and create its own noise as she continued to play notes on a different part of the guitar.

Some songs had an obvious structure, where repetition turned into resolution. An example was a Tammy Wynette tune, the one straightforward Country song she attempted.

Other songs were full of crisp notes that flowed together and fit the song. But, the approach of the songs made them seem more complex than they were. And maybe this why people describe Alcorn's playing as "experimental," because she doesn't need, and is more talented than needing, to take a conventional approach to get her point across. She played contrary note progressions, so like a Pollock painting, it wasn't exactly obvious what she was trying to do at the beginning of a song. But, once six minutes had passed and I could see how the seemingly incongruous pieces of the song had come together, her art BEGAN to make sense. The key word is began. I didn't get to full understanding, and that was some of the fun and challenge of the music. Like a good painting, Alcorn's music wasn't exactly supposed to be figured out on the first listen. You need to take a second, closer look.

Alcorn sat alone on the stage and went through about six songs. Each was five minutes or longer. The chairs on the gallery floor were full. Alcorn managed to draw out local musicians like Joe Cabral, James Singleton, Potpie, and Alec Vance.


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