Hank Williams in a Minor Key
by Dare Dukes
Brooklyn's Lucinda Black Bear Goes where the Grunions Run
On the European leg of the tour for their new record, “Capo My Heart” and Other Bear Songs, Lucinda Black Bear added a cover of Hank Williams’ “Can’t Get You Off of My Mind” to their set of originals. The band’s soaring and lushly arranged songs weave together myriad strains of American music, old and new, so a Hank Williams cover was hardly a stretch. But something about the up-tempo number didn’t quite fit until Christian Gibbs, the band’s songwriter and soft-spoken front man, suggested they play the song in a minor key. “When we did that,” Gibbs explains, “it became a Lucinda Black Bear song.”
Gibbs formed Lucinda Black Bear in 2006, when he found himself with a handful of quietly intimate songs that couldn’t find a sonic place in C. Gibbs and the Cardia Bros., his then-current project. He had recorded three critically acclaimed records as C. Gibbs, with a large and rotating cast of talented characters staffing his backup band. With the help of regular gigs at Manhattan’s Rodeo Bar, the band’s sound had evolved into a post-Pixies twang that was often raucous and hinted occasionally of Kurt Weill. And though Gibbs’s lilting melodies, complex chord progressions, and contemplative lyrics dampened the roar on the recordings, the band’s live set had become so thrillingly high-spirited and country as to leave little room for the hushed, off-kilter ballads that had always been part of Gibbs’s songbook. Parade of Small Horses, the band’s third disk, was decidedly and satisfyingly country—and one of the results of this success was that Gibbs, a songwriter with great range, found himself craving a broader instrumental palette.
To frame his blank canvas, Gibbs conjured the name “Lucinda Black Bear” almost out of thin air, claiming that, other than making a reference for no particular reason to the typeface, he wanted a moniker “that purposefully means nothing.” To give blood to the new name, Gibbs recruited Kristin Mueller (drums) and Mike Cohen (bass), then, as if seeking an antidote to the steel guitars that had so often defined his previous songs, he found the beginning of a string section in cellist Chad Hammer. (Clare Burson, on violin, often joins the band on stage.) Pete’s Candy Store booked them, and they got to work arranging a collection of songs that had never before made it out of Gibbs’s home recording studio.
While all of Lucinda Black Bear's tunes are Gibbs’s, the core members are quick to remark on how engaged they are in what is a collective process. Gibbs’s personality is unmistakably manifest in the material, but when it comes to orchestration he steps back and lets the other members speak for their own instruments. As Cohen describes it, “We’re all very good friends and we have a great time playing together. It’s a very collaborative effort, and we’re an entity that is very much devoid of individual egos.” Gibbs’s evident trust in his band members is no doubt possible because, as in the past, the personnel he has tapped to carry his compositions are all indisputably worthy of it. Cohen, a schooled musician and composer, plays numerous instruments (including guitar with Gibbs in another band, the Droves), has produced several bands (most recently a Brooklyn act called the Assault), and last year completed his first score for a feature film. Mueller picked up drums only two years ago—a fact that is hard to fathom for anyone who has witnessed her beat the skins off them—and she plays them (and other instruments) in at least four bands, including her own. In 2006 she released a sweetly intricate solo album, Ports of Call. Hammer—a trained classical musician who was born in North Carolina and raised in Kentucky—has had stage time with the likes of Itzhak Perlman, Luciano Pavarotti, Smokey Robinson, and Ray Charles. Now, besides Lucinda Black Bear, he gives his full musical attention to the youths, homeless women, and elderly clients he teaches through two social service agencies in the city.
The band’s arrangements are luxuriant. Piano and, in some songs, as many as three acoustic and electric guitar tracks (all overdubbed by Gibbs in the studio) add yet more layers. Cohen and Mueller’s rhythm section grounds the tunes perfectly, weighting them sometimes lightly, sometimes forcefully, in response to the shifting dynamics of Gibbs’s performances. And Hammer and Burson’s strings add the color, light, and oxygen.
Such rich orchestrations would smother lesser material, but they open up big landscapes within the intimate spaces of Gibbs’s complex songs. The compositions never seem able to rest long in one mood, either musically or lyrically, without showing you its opposite. There is an often tense, sometimes playful sway between major and minor, comical and sad, fast and slow, loss and redemption—that never threatens to break the song in two.
The lyrics, taken as a whole, suggest that these deeply personal songs rest on something broken, but Gibbs’s love of artifice and cracked metaphors always wins out over tedious confessional clarity. He will tell you that he packs his songs with as much fiction as fact—though he will admit that “All She Wanted” is about his childhood. There are ghosts, crippled hands, dead uncles, insane mothers, broken promises, ambulances, and lost or dead fathers who have “gone where the grunions run.” But the fractured sadness is always leavened, sometimes by the comically grotesque nature of the imagery itself, often by the bare beauty of melody carried by a meandering chord progression rooted more in the light opera of Roy Orbison or Patsy Kline than in what we consider rock ’n’ roll. And just when you think the chords cannot descend any further, they turn and rise again, with Gibbs offering sweet support, as he does in “Capo My Heart”: “In the jaws of them, count to ten, bite the belt, and be brave.” Such redemptive moments—when, after walking us through a nightmare, Gibbs tells us that everything will be okay—abound in these songs. And they make up a reluctant but persistent optimism that renders any comparison to Elliott Smith pointless.
Elliott Smith is but one of many influences Gibb admits to. He also credits Mississippi John Hurt, Big Star, the Beatles, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Smiths. It’s easy enough to hear all of these in his work: the virtuoso finger-picking and call-and-response of Hurt, the weeping guitar of George Harrison, the neurotic pop show-tunes of the Smiths. It’s a weird mix, to be sure, and one that has spawned several Mr. Gibbses over the course of his career. In his early twenties he was in England, dropping out of school to tour with Modern English. After that he recorded three albums with his band the Morning Glories. Then he made three solo records, during which time he began calling himself C. Gibbs. Though Gibbs explains away the truncation of his name as a preference for the monosyllabic, it’s not hard to listen to the many voices present in his solo work and read it as a mask for the masks. At times, the real Christan Gibbs has been hard to pin down. The Great American Pop Star has learned to impersonate a single personality, something that can be branded and marketed like the Marlboro Man. Even Madonna, who perfected the art of pop shape-shifting, kept her master clearly visible behind the puppets she trotted out for every album. Gibbs, on the other hand, has never been able to, or wanted to, settle. His musical projects have carried him across a broad stretch of the American songbook, and his projected personae have morphed with the melodies. There is his roots-rocker self, who affects a slight drawl and sings of horses and times gone by. There is the finger-picking balladeer who sings of demon liquor over his manual pyrotechnics. And there is the barker yelling about bad marriages, backed up by players who sound like outcasts from a Weimar Republic circus. With all these identities (and more), Gibbs has an obvious flare for the poetic voice, for the theatrical, for the multiple personality, but not for revealing the songwriter underneath.
With Lucinda Black Bear, however, he seems to have let himself go: His hair—closely cropped in promo photos for his numerous past projects—has blossomed into a fuzzy white-man ’fro. Out of style or necessity, he has donned a pair of thick black Buddy Holly glasses, giving him the look of a bookish clown stripped of makeup. The aesthetic, cultivated or not, is disarming and—not surprisingly—in sharp contrast to the easy confidence he exudes as a performer.
And when this falsetto-voiced, big-haired Christian Gibbs takes the stage with Cohen, Mueller, and Hammer behind him, and as the band’s musicianship, powerful instrumentation, and startling material coalesce, Lucinda Black Bear hushes the house.
“Capo My Heart” and Other Bear Songs has already sold out of its first pressing, and Gibbs has added new material to their set, which the band will record soon. With all this success, are there signs that the nature of Lucinda Black Bear is changing? The new favorite—of both audiences and band members—is a departure for the group: an up-tempo barn-burner called “Medicine Bag,” featuring a screeching open-tuned guitar line played by Gibbs (a scratch recording of the song can be heard at myspace.com/cgibbs), a stomping drum line by Mueller, and a major key.
Dare Dukes is a writer and musician living on the Lower East Side. He is currently working on a novel.