Greg Burk, January 5, 2008

The freewheeling band doesn’t need much to get rolling at the Mint. Norton Wisom’s on-screen paintings add to the unrestrained mood.

Art needn’t be refined to be fine, as the jam orgies of Banyan and the instant painting of Norton Wisdom proved Thursday night at the Mint.

A riff and a groove are all bassist Mike Watt (Minutemen, Firehouse, Iggy Pop), guitarist Nels Cline (Wilco), drummer Stephen Perkins (Jane’s Addiction) and trumpeter Willie Waldman (Snoop Dogg) need to achieve orbit; their decade-long association, plus common inspiration inhaled from 1970-era electric noise, would make too much rehearsal a plain bring-down.

Looking bleary after he pocketed his prof-ish specs, Watt plunged immediately in the gloomy riff of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gune”; Cline unleashed a sliding squall, and the low ceiling of this old-line rock bar began to vibrate.

The night’s theme was the music of Detroit, hometown of guest trombonist (and former Motown session man) Phil Ranelin, who has come back strong after a car crash nearly killed him a couple of years ago. Perkins’ intense slap hustled some MC5-style soul boogie.

The spiky head of the lanky Cline twitched as he piled abstractions onto Funkadelic’s acid dirge, “Maggot Brain.” Watt taxed his speakers and his lungs with the primitive blurt of “TV Eye” and “Fun House,” underground hits by the proto-punk Iggy Pop and the Stooges, whose lineup he’s filled out in recent years. All Chocolate City stuff. A Detroit connection even lurked in Banyan’s woozy cover of “A Love Supreme,” the signature of jazz great John Coltrane, whose drummer, ,Elvin Jones, was a Motor Citizen. The spindly Ranelin sounded most at home here, filling gaseous voids with greasy smears. Throughout, he executed effective pecking harmonies with Waldman, who lent Miles Davis-like Spanish colorations to the luryical interludes that spaced Banyan’s jam assaults and belly-dance meanderings.

Cline clawed at the very guts of the music. Inexhaustible in variety, intensity and ensemble intelligence, he thrust his “guitar” (the word hardly seems adequate) into the sound and never relented, elevating entertainment to life-and-death struggle. And it was his birthday. (“Fifty-two more!” someone yelled in the dense, enthusiastic boho crowd.)

The tousle-haired and bespectacled Wisdom built up to an acknowledgement. He’s been painting on screens to accompany music for ages; this night his images metamorphosed from a baby in demon arms to a waif confronting a dragon to a galleon on an iridescent seas, all remarkably detailed and occasionally transformed into mosaic with a quickly etched grid.

In Wisdom’s last apparition, a menorah confronted a crucifixion scene and a radio tower. With a few fast strokes, the menorah became a birthday cake.