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D. Charles Speer and The Helix: Bringing the weird and wild back to country

By Brian Rademaekers,

The first time I saw Hans Chew play, he was opening up for Jack Rose at Brickbat Books on Fourth Street last year. Slamming down the ivory with a vengeance rarely seen these days - and rocking back and forth with a touch of foam in the corners of his mouth - he belted out bluesy, boogieing numbers like his “Bar-Abbas Blues,” a honky-tonk confession by the crook whom Jesus took the place of on Calvary one infamous day. Chew continued to show off his tight but frantic piano style in keeping up with the multi-rhythmic, finger-picking master Jack Rose as the pair ripped through songs likeFishtown Flower.”

I didn’t hear Chew’s piano again until a friend at Tequila Sunrise records on Girard recommended getting a copy of D. Charles Speer & The Helix's After Hours. Turns out that Mr. Chew keeps some good company.

It’s been hard to pass up that LP every time I see it on the record shelf. Released on Black Dirt Records in 2008,After Hours is the second full-length by D. Charles Speer - the solo moniker of David Charles Shuford.

They’ll open for the Strapping Fieldhands at Kung Fu Kecktie Nov. 19.

Speer is a New York musician probably best known for his work with the far-out, Harlem-centered experimental outfit known as No-Neck Blues Band, or NNCK. The band, a staple of the New York avant-garde scene for some 17 years now, is famous for formless voyages into noise that incorporate elements of jazz, folk, electronics, and just about anything they can get their hands on.

Listening to NNCK alongside After Hours - a rollicking and freewheeling blast of rocking country - it’s hard to find much connection between the two.

That’s where Shuford’s solo debut, Some Forgotten Country, helps out, acting as a bridge between the chaotic and eclectic vibes of NNCK and After Hours’ swooning embrace of Americana.

On Some Forgotten Country, Shuford brought with him a varied arsenal of strings, including a mandolin, lap steel, upright bass and bouzouki. The latter, a sort of mandolin-lute hybrid, is the backbone of modern Greek music, something Shuford grew up listening to at big drunken family jamborees.

On the 2007 debut, Shuford brings that heritage with him, as well as the experimental tendencies he acquired with the No-Neck ensemble.

But he also brought a healthy dose of boozy country ramblers. It might seem like a case of strange musical bedfellows, but Shuford pulls it off and in the process creates something wholly new.

You hear the beginnings of After Hours on songs like “Tombstone Every Mile,” a trucker country classic championed by Dick Curless. Shuford gives it the proper lick of twang and lends his deep baritone to the soulful vocals. It is, in all respects, a fairly traditional if low-key cover.

It’s just about the same on a rendition of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold,” but you only get to hear that soothing bit of country after spiraling through the maelstrom of “The Janissaries” a blistering and at times maddeningly grating piece of guitar work straight out of the Sun City Girls/Sir Richard Bishop camp.

Those seemingly disparate styles collide beautifully on a cover of "There Stands the Glass,“ a boozer’s country gem best known for the Webb Pierce version. Shuford, however, doesn’t worry too much about paying homage to past troubadours.

The cover starts as a warm, warbling take on the classic, but as the mandolin comes in, the song slowly and gracefully begins to dissolve into a bluesy psychedelic haze of instrumentals peppered with percussion and a touch of Middle Eastern influence.

But where Some Forgotten Country seems like an experimental folk album with some country influence, that formula is flipped on After Hours.

Perhaps it’s the addition of the Helix gang, but After Hours is a much more rocking affair.

To be sure, there is plenty of weirdness worked in there, but it acts as an often subtle twinge that spikes the heavier rock ‘n’ roll and country elements just enough to make them more intriguing.

You hear it immediately on the album’s opener, "Fossilized,” where Shuford’s easy country pace and laid-back approach are spliced with some wild, syncopated guitar freak-outs that are as strange as they are beautiful.

Throughout the album, superb backing from Chew and the others keeps the songs moving along, and frequently lends a sort of honky-tonk edge to the otherwise spacey experimentation and reverb.

Shuford might have taken a strange route to arrive at an album like this, but looking back, it’s hard to imagine any other path that would have resulted in such a perfect balance of the cosmic and the earthy.

Shuford will be in town just in time to show off Distillation, his latest full-length with the Helix, and their first on Chicago’s Three Lobed. **

Who: Strapping Field Hands, D. Charles Speer & The Helix, Megajam Booze Band

What: Good old honky-tonk boogie with a dash of weird

When: Thursday, Nov. 19, at 9 p.m.

Where: Kung Fu Necktie, Front and Thompson

D. Charles Speer - Fall Tour Dates

Oct. 30, 2009: Brooklyn, NY @ CoCo 66
w/ Yellowbirds, Mushroom Cloud

Nov. 11, 2009: Albany, NY @ Helderberg House
w/ Connie Acher, Burnt Hills

Nov. 12, 2009: Northampton, MA @ Sierra Grille
w/ Matt Krefting

Nov. 13, 2009: Portland, ME @ Apohadion
w/ Prisma, Baab Ceegur

Nov. 15, 2009: Brooklyn, NY @ Union Pool
w/ Zachary Cale, Prince Ruperts Drops

Nov. 16, 2009: Baltimore, MD @ The Windup Space
w/ David Heumann of Arbouretum!!

Nov. 17, 2009: Chapel Hill, NC @ Nightlight
w/ Dan Melchior und das menace, Hiss Golden Messenger

Nov. 18, 2009: Blacksburg, VA @ 710 Toms Creek Rd (Cabin Party)
w/ Black Twig Pickers, Cross featuring M.A. Turner

Nov. 19, 2009: Philidelphia, PA @ Kung Fu Necktie
w/ Strapping Fieldhands, Megajam Booze Band