P.S.1 ‘Warm Up’ Cools Down With Jonathan Kane

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The New York Sun

As a drummer, Jonathan Kane has worked for such demanding bandleaders as the minimalist godfather LaMonte Young, and Michael Gira of post-punk brutalists Swans. But before all that, Mr. Kane was a teenage blues addict with a fake ID who toured up and down the East Coast with his harmonica-wielding older brother Anthony, in the Kane Brothers Blues Band. It was the 1970s.

The combo lasted only a few years, breaking up about the time Mr. Kane reached legal drinking age. One day, on one of his frequent pilgrimages to the heavily black South Side of Chicago, the white Mr. Kane found himself performing in Theresa’s Lounge, a club in which white patrons were best advised to sprint from the taxicab to the door. As he played a favorite beat, he heard a gruff voice call out.

“Where’d you learn how to do the whorehouse shuffle like that?”


It was Junior Wells, the legendary Chicago singer and harmonica player. Mr. Kane had never heard the rhythm called that before, but the comment was high praise. The “whorehouse shuffle” has since become a signature for Mr. Kane.

“It’s characterized by a little grace note just before the backbeat,” he said. “It makes the backbeat swing a little harder. Most bluesers know it as the ‘double shuffle.'”

It’s a major component in the music Mr. Kane performs with his band February, a five-piece rock outfit that headlines the Saturday finale of P.S.1’s Summer Warm-Up, a series of free outdoor concerts at the Long Island City art museum. The band, which will release its second album, “Ear Jet Party” (Radium), early next year, boasts three guitarists. The front line generates the same textured harmonic effects that Mr. Kane has loved so much about his 20-year collaboration with the composer Rhys Chatham, in whose armies of 100 or more guitarists the drummer served as the sole percussive source.


Mr. Kane’s propulsive verve imports the infectious, hip-shake rhythms of Chicago blues, while the guitars mass and drone behind a simple, slippery theme of a few choice notes. There’s a lot of moonshine in it, and a lot of old-school New York art-rock spirit. Only there’s no pretension — it’s party music.

“We played our own style of very high-octane Chicago-style blues,” Mr. Kane, speaking by phone recently, said as he recalled his days gigging with his brother. “Very, very aggressive super-charged blues. And I just never escaped it.”

Even the drummer’s tenure with the Swans, whose stark and abrasive aesthetic he helped create with Mr. Gira, came to an end when the band’s style began to shift.


“The whole rhythmic subdivision thing was fun,” he said. “But then the band lost a sense of swing and became more of a Teutonic grind. I liked it when it had a little bit of a lilt.”

Mr. Kane also suffered hearing damage in his right ear, for which he blames a faulty monitor at the Mudd Club, a downtown hot spot circa 1982.

Saturday’s concert harks back to those days, which were recently celebrated in a book, “No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York 1976-1980” (Abrams Image), by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and the rock critic Byron Coley. Sharing the bill is another figure who made his name in the early-1980s “no wave” era of New York rock, the saxophonist, soul shouter, and occasional pugilist James Chance.

“We’re both acts that have taken the black American musical experience — whether it’s blues, jazz, or funk — and pulled it into a direction of our own,” Mr. Kane said. “Both bands have credibility with people who don’t like that kind of music.”

Mr. Kane is sanguine on the topic of reunions, which have been popular with rock bands of early-’80s vintage.

“I mean, Mission of Burma sounds better than ever,” he said. “But I’m just trying to have a reunion with myself!” Several years ago, the musician took a full-time job as a photographic editor for Time Life. He also oversees the archives of his father, the photographer Art Kane, who is best known for his 1958 Esquire magazine photo of 57 jazz giants, “A Great Day in Harlem.” Art Kane, whose wide variety of work included portraits and album covers for the likes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Janis Joplin, and Lester Young, gave his son an early introduction to the music world. But Mr. Kane found that it was difficult to sustain a financially sensible career from it.

“The [photography] job had the opposite effect, though,” he said. “Since I was less stressed financially, I became 10 times more productive.” An invitation to record a one-off vinyl single for the independent art-music label Table of the Elements, which had released a box set of Mr. Chatham’s older recordings, led to an ongoing series of albums and festival performances for February.

The band features young musicians from the Brooklyn bands Bear in Heaven and Clara Venus, as well as longtime friends and guests, such as the singer-songwriters Peg Simone and Lisa B. Burns. Ultimately, the group testifies to Mr. Kane’s almost glandular connection to a peculiar rhythmic concept: the whorehouse shuffle.

“I don’t know anybody in New York who can play a double shuffle who’s a straight blueser,” he said. “They can’t swing, unless they’re jazzers.”

But the jazzers just don’t have the thump.

“I need to play it with the power of a rock drummer and the freedom of an improviser,” Mr. Kane continued, paying heed to the imperative to keep some figurative grease on top of the beat. It’s allowed the drummer to come full circle, though he still laughs pretty hard about the glory days.

“What was fun was people’s reactions,” he said, remembering those assaultive performances with the Swans. “These dyed-in-the-wool, seen-it-all New York crowds were shocked. But I didn’t like people coming up and saying, ‘My stomach hurts.’ I like to see people dance. When we’re having a great time, people really seem to lose themselves, and when people seem to lose themselves, so do I.”

The New York Sun

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