Lonnie Holley’s Past, Present, and Future

Blues for Smoke at the Whitney Museum, March 22

The Blues for Smoke exhibition at the Whitney Museum paints the blues aesthetic with an ever-expanding palette. That is to say, there are a lot of references you’d expect, and quite a few that challenge preconceived notions. A series of musical performances has been arranged that complement the eclectic exhibition’s visual component. The evening of March 22 brought together two performers, Cooper-Moore and Lonnie Holley, each playing his own set. Cooper-Moore, a well-traveled and jovial gentleman, has staked a claim in my consciousness for his piano playing in William Parker’s group In Order to Survive. That group’s sprawling 1998 release The Peach Orchard is a singular musical experience—working-class jazz improvisation at its very best, entirely free of ego. His opening set, however, catered to the pay-what-you-want Friday-night crowd that packed the stuffy performance room. Moore wanted to put a smile on everyone’s face, and he probably succeeded. However, while I, too, may have cracked a smile, his performance left me wanting. In short, it wasn’t the kind of conversation-starter that I had hoped for and that I fully expected and received from Lonnie Holley.

Lonnie Holley at the Whitney Museum. Photo: Matt Arnett.

When Lonnie Holley took the stage, it was difficult to know what to expect, simply because there has been very little written about his music—and even less about his performances. Holley is best known as a visual artist. His sculptures, made primarily from found objects, have graced such institutions as the American Folk Art Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Overarching themes of free association, improvisation, and the importance of recycling all permeate his work. It is probably not surprising, then, that these same themes can all be found in his music. Holley, who is 63, had never come out with a proper album until last year, when Dust-to-Digital released Just Before Music, a collection of songs culled from studio recordings Holley had been working on for two years. Born into poverty in Birmingham, Alabama, the seventh of 27 children, Holley imparts a fascinating perspective, and his affecting style imbues his music with a deep sense of pathos. Layered ambience backs his rich, textured voice in loosely structured songs that reference everything from the earliest memories of his childhood to cosmic existentialism. A musical reference point is difficult to pinpoint; the best place to look for one might be in a surprising location: more than anything, I hear the echoes of the longform meditations of Richard Youngs’s more minimal pieces.

For a performer who seldom plays live—this was his first show in New York—Holley was easily able to bring to the room the same sense of sincerity, heartbreak, and bemusement that make his album such a compelling artifact. Sitting by himself on stage with only a small synthesizer and a microphone, Holley got right to work with songs I recognized from his album. “Mama’s Little Baby” and “Looking for All (All Rendered Truth)” are two of his more accessible pieces. Among Holley’s songs, these two come closest to following a traditional song structure. As the performance unfolded, though, improvisation began to take over. Melodies remained familiar, but Holley replaced lyrics on the album with stream-of-consciousness monologues that riffed on various themes. Holley comes across as a man highly aware of even the smallest details of his surroundings, and I can only imagine that it is this keen sense of self-awareness that drives his narratives.

In between songs, Holley found plenty of time to talk, and myriad subjects to address. The most important thing to take from his asides, though, was his prolonged acknowledgment of his label, Dust-to-Digital. The pairing makes perfect sense, even if Holley is the only living artist on the label’s roster. While his music does recall some of the sounds of the label’s vast reservoir of marginalized folk, blues, and early American music, the pairing is clever in its philosophic intent. Even though his thoughts—both in his music and in his stage banter—are sometimes difficult to decipher, it’s quite clear that one of Holley’s main concerns is his difficultly in coping with society’s irresponsible embrace of technology. To take this attitude means to treat the last tangible remains of past generations as so much dust; it couldn’t be more fitting, then, that Holley has teamed up with a label that keeps alive the sounds of so many long-forgotten artists. I can’t tell if Lonnie Holley is from some place deep in the past or if he’s lurking in our future—he’s exceedingly difficult to pin down—but his foray into music and performance, and the conversations it has generated, belong squarely in the present. 

Contributor

Christopher Nelson

Christopher Nelson lives and works in Brooklyn.

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