The American Astronaut
Featuring a live performance by The Billy Nayer Show
June 5, 2004
It is rare to see a film and a band at the same venue–most shows are a dizzy spell of cigarette smoke, cheap beer, and a slurry of bands wielding the same old guitars. Seeing The Billy Nayer Show play after a screening of The American Astronaut was a pleasant–if a little bizarre–change of scenery. Certainly, only a few people in the audience anticipated seeing a man actually rock-out on an autoharp and make feedback with a ukulele.
Since the band’s inception in 1989, Cory McAbee has been the main artistic force behind BNS; all of the releases to this day not only feature his music and concepts, but his visual art as well. McAbee is a prolific artist with two screen pieces: the stream-of-consciousness musical Ketchup & Mustard Man and numerous drawings to his credit. He was also an autoharpist for the Chinese Opera The Orphan of Zhao at The Guggenheim, and has since started work on his next film, Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest. As if that was not enough, McAbee has recently finished writing his first book, entitled Rabbit, which will also have music to accompany the story.
Along with McAbee is producer/drummer Bobby Lurie, and bassist Frank Swart–both of whom have exceptional and lengthy track-records worthy of more praise than I am able to provide here.
The audience was primed with a screening of The American Astronaut–a flinty and critically-acclaimed film written, directed by and starring McAbee, as the interplanetary trader Samuel Curtis. The film chronicles Curtis’ journey from the Ceres Crossroads bar on a trading mission through the solar system. Not only does it tout an amusing story and excellent cinematography, but a rousing bit of musical interludes; picture Eraserhead on Broadway. It would not surprise me if this film was the next Rocky Horror Picture Show–a cult film with followers who dress-up, bring props, sing, and unabashedly perform and recite dialogue during the film.
For someone with such an arsenal of magic and macabre behind him, McAbee puts on a fairly humble and audience-friendly show. This personable quality seems to permeate BNS projects; during the film many audience members did sing-along to the musical numbers and recited dialogue, and during the proceeding performance, McAbee was not averse to answering questions from audience members between songs. Surprisingly, BNS created a very similar feel to the film with their live set. Swart’s effect-laden bass creates an amazingly lush sonic backdrop for McAbee to elaborate upon fantastic stories full of rabbit kings, monkeys, his cat, and the devil. All of this was held-together by the jazz-influenced expertise of Lurie, whose supporting role as drummer echoed his behind-the-scenes stature as film/band producer.
Unlike their contemporaries and fellow Bay-Area dwellers The Residents, BNS deliver their literate, strange, and dream-like quality in a very accessible way. This is definitely a must-see show for concert-goers who want to leave with a smile on their faces. You may not know how to describe it, but you’ll at least know you had a good time.
Photos by Ryan Connor