Feedback: Bill Frisell and Blackwitch Pudding

Two very different acts played in Bend Tuesday

By Ben Salmon / The Bulletin / @frequencyblog

In July of 2008, I reveled in the opportunity to see two very, very different kinds of shows in one night: Shock-rocker Alice Cooper’s arena-sized spectacle at the Deschutes County fair, and, after a quick trip down the highway, indie-rock mewler Conor Oberst’s more understated show at the Domino Room.

Tuesday night brought a similar contrast to Bend as virtuoso guitarist Bill Frisell played the Tower Theatre and stoner/doom metal band Blackwitch Pudding invaded Volcanic Theatre Pub.

I knew Blackwitch Pudding was going to be loud and gnarly. I was less sure of what to expect from Frisell’s “Guitar in the Space Age” program, which he and his band — bassist Tony Scherr, drummer Kenny Wollesen and Greg Leisz on electric and pedal-steel guitars — developed just last weekend in San Francisco. (When I spoke to Frisell for last week’s GO! Magazine, even he wasn’t sure what to expect.)

What we got was an impressive, nuanced tour through the rock ‘n’ roll of the mid-20th century that occasionally rose to a low rumble, but mostly floated around the Tower with grace, like a neon feather caught in a nostalgic breeze.

I was late, actually, and by the time I walked in, the band was settling into the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” with the interplay between Frisell and Leisz reminding me of one of those dancing fountains, guitar lines taking turns arcing past one another. When they moved quickly and silently — except for the hum of the guitars — into a bluesier number, I figured Frisell would use the next between-song break to step to the single mic on the stage and tell us what they’d played.

But he didn’t. In fact, he never identified any of the songs being performed. He never even talked except for at the end of the first set and at the beginning of the encore. Instead, Frisell spent most of the night turned away from the audience and toward the other three players, their eyes locked on each other as they felt their way through these songs.

They seemed to almost exist inside a bubble. It was like looking at a living museum piece. Or watching a super-talented band practice without knowing you’re there.

That’s not to say it wasn’t great, because it was. It just wasn’t exactly lively, though the quartet did show off its muscles here and there, most notably on Link Wray’s earth-moving surf-rock classic “Rumble” and The Astronauts’ “Baja,” a jaunty, reverberant surf-pop song that was probably my favorite of the evening.

After an intermission, a syrupy version of The Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting for You” kicked off the second set, with Frisell showcasing the song’s gorgeous melody on guitar. There was another bluesy jam and a surf-rock song that I recognized but just can’t place, and then the band did its sublime take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Wind Cries Mary.” The original is so great, it’s impossible to improve on it, but Frisell and company at least did the song justice.

After another break, the band encored with the Beach Boys “Surfer Girl” interwoven with The Ventures’ amazing, galloping “Telstar,” but not before Frisell cracked wise about his sore arm. “I don’t know how those youngsters played these songs,” the longtime jazzman said.

That may have been true, but he sure did make it look easy. As the lights came on, I heard a bunch of people in the crowd offer dazzling mini-reviews to their friends on the way out the door.

Over at Volcanic Theatre Pub, there was a decidedly different scene. To be clear: Blackwitch Pudding is a Portland band that plays sludgy stoner-rock and psychedelic doom metal while wearing wizard robes and swilling beer. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek … well, except the riffs.

There were four “wizards” on stage, but I’m pretty sure one was controlling the light show, so that left a trio to bang out some of the heaviest music to come through Bend in a while. The band played several songs from its fine 2013 album “Taste the Pudding,” stopping every six or eight minutes to tell jokes or growl about beer in their wizard voices.

For about an hour, though, Blackwitch Pudding blasted what I thought was a pretty good crowd for a cold, rainy weeknight with wave after wave of raunchy, rumbling metal, anchored by the chest-caving bass of Lizard Wizard. All three members took turns on vocals, ranging from tunefully gruff singing to white-noise howls. It was, frankly, glorious, at least if loud and heavy music is something you’re into.

It’s something I’m into, so I stood up close and soaked it in. Blackwitch Pudding may not have been the best band in Bend on Tuesday night, but they sure were a ton of fun. And Frisell and friends weren’t quite a ton of fun, but they were definitely the best band in town. Each put a grin on my face for entirely different reasons.

— Reporter: 541-383-0377, bsalmon@bendbulletin.com