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The Dead Tongues
September 11 @ 9:00 pm
–8PM DOORS / 9PM SHOW
-STANDING ROOM ONLY
COVID-19 POLICY UPDATE: The Grey Eagle requires all patrons attending performances to provide proof of vaccination or negative test within 48 hours prior to the event. Currently Buncombe Co. mandates that masks be worn indoors. THIS MEANS YOU NEED TO MASK UP. Patrons will need to provide physical or digital documentation of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test. Professional negative test results must be dated no more than 48 hours prior to the event. At-home testing will not be accepted.
When Ryan Gustafson finished recording Transmigration Blues, his fourth and best album under the name The Dead Tongues, in the summer of 2019, he slumped into a month-long haze of depression. For two decades, Gustafson—a preternaturally sensitive soul, interested in the mystic but grounded by his love of quiet woods and open deserts—had made many albums with various bands and under assorted guises. This one however, had left him wounded, momentarily empty. He couldn’t write songs, couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t summon any enthusiasm for tapping into his emotions. Even the shows he played meant going through the motions. “The deeper wells of my being had run dry,” he remembers of how he felt when he returned to his mountain cabin, deep in a North Carolina holler. “There was just this big, open space.”
In the years since recording his 2018 breakthrough, Unsung Passage, Gustafson had built words and songs of intense emotional reckoning. He had wrestled with relationships that failed spectacularly. He had contemplated growing up in and then apart from a devoted religious household. He had surveyed the damage of living hard in his 20s, partying in the back of vans as he prowled the interstates of the United States, reckless and free.
Before any of the songs detailing these reckonings emerged, Gustafson had the title Transmigration Blues—a reference to the Buddhist concept of a dead body’s soul migrating into another host. For Gustafson, though, it also represents the “little deaths” we all experience as we grow and evolve, the lessons and fables (however indirect) we take with us as we molt and slip from an old skin into our next one. This baggage was daunting, Gustafson admits, but he’s better for having sorted through it, having pulled it from his body at last. “It took a while to come back from,” he says. “But I would rather walk out of the studio feeling that way instead of it just being another day at the office.”
Those thoughts—powerful personal reflections on his place in the world, tardy attempts to find meaning in the moments of life he thought he’d left behind—are the core of Transmigration Blues, an album that transmogrifies heavy emotional burdens into some of the most disarming folk-rock you’ll ever hear. From the graceful string-swept recollections of “Deep Water, Strange Wind” to the radiant calls and responses of “Bama Boys Circa 2005,” Gustafson drags past darkness into present light. Transmigration Blues gets to the idiosyncratic heart and unorthodox past of Gustafson, who lives the contemplative rural life about which many of his peers simply sing.
In the past, The Dead Tongues have been a pragmatically sparse project. All his adult life, Gustafson has been an itinerant sort, whether hitchhiking across the West or simply touring hard. His songs as The Dead Tongues tended toward elemental arrangements that could quickly be stripped onstage to their acoustic essence, should he need to perform them alone. But for more than a year, Gustafson has rented a century-old cabin on a 100-acre spread amid the Blue Ridge Mountains, writing songs in a little triangular greenhouse flooded by light.
This newfound stability, coupled with the wider audience that the tender but troubled Unsung Passage cultivated, allowed Gustafson’s imagination to wander, wondering what his decidedly intimate thoughts would sound like played by an all-star band of collaborators new and old. He invited some of his longtime companions from Chapel Hill’s fertile roots music scene, all of Mountain Man, and a drummer with a separate percussionist. For nine largely sleepless days living and working at North Carolina’s Fidelitorium, they gave these songs everything they had. “I had never had the experience of working like that,” says Gustafson. “It was really trying and completely rewarding, just a huge release.”
From its first notes, when organ and piano peal warmly beneath Gustafson’s strummed guitar, Transmigration Blues summons the sounds of friends supporting one of their own as he works through the annals of existence. Laced with sharp electric leads and a kaleidoscope of harmonies and hand drums, opener “Peaceful Ambassador” celebrates the lows, the highs, and the sense of salvation that singing about both can supply. He taps a surfeit of natural beauty for “Equinox Receiver”—the Badlands and the East River, green forests and golden fields—to show how we’re all suspended somewhere between despair and fulfillment, just trying to do our best with what we have. As his small studio choir joins him, you can imagine an endless audience, joining in this perfect ode to survival.
The album’s epic centerpiece is “Déjà Vu,” a song about trying to find the actual space and air to function with any kind of contentment in these increasingly harried times. It’s a gorgeous, candid confession about the odds we all face just to be happy. Gustafson and the band stretch out for seven minutes, returning for a reprise as if to remind us we’re all in this primitive quest together. “The sky is crowded/with a million lights just trying to get through a darkness/and find a way through,” Gustafson sings at the start of the second verse, his voice quiet from the exhaustion of just being. In the chorus, everyone sings together, lifting one another toward those lights.
The world has changed drastically since Gustafson wrote and recorded these songs—entropy, you may say, has found the freeway. In this stark moment of uncertainty, The Dead Tongues’ hymns to understanding your past and finding renewal in the changing seasons are more vital than Gustafson might have ever imagined. They feel like a homecoming for yourself, a farewell for all the guilt you’ve stockpiled. At a time when admitting that most of us are doing the very best we can seems revolutionary, Transmigration Blues is a welcome statement of radical acceptance.
While you might not know of the solo project MJ Lenderman, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Jake Lenderman’s guitar work as a member of one of my favourite bands of recent years, Asheville’s North Carolina’s Wednesday. This week Jake will share the new album, Ghost of Your Guitar Solo, his label debut for Dear Life Records, home to the likes of Karl Blau and Lindsay Reamer. The record was born out of a series of jam sessions, with lyrics inspired by a method championed by the late David Berman, where seemingly unconnected lines are written, with the majority scrapped, before the remaining ones are stitched together into the finished project.
Ghost Of Your Guitar Solo emerged from a particularly prolific period of writing, creating a sound that the band have described as, “country music being played by a noisy punk-band”, the tracks having a raw and ragged quality, the performance perfect in their wonderful imperfections. From the moment the record opens with its title track, resplendent with oozing, fizzing guitar line, you’re transported to a place of noisy sonic wonder. Elsewhere, I Ate Too Much At The Fair nods to the emotive fuzz of Wolf Parade, while the instrumental outro of Catholic Priest could be Neil Young jamming with Wilco. Lyrically, the record seems to walk the line between humour and darkness, taking inspiration from writers like Harry Crews and Larry Brown as Jake talks about over-indulgence, drugs, alcohol abuse and self-loathing, while never missing out on the absurdity and humour that life throws at us all. Whether it is a stop-gap between Wednesday albums, or the start of a newly focused solo career, Ghost Of Your Guitar Solo feels like an intriguing prospect; a record that celebrates life, in all its complex and often baffling glory.
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