Live Review: Body/Head, Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society, Chicago, March 7, 2019

Before the Chicago Stock Exchange building came down in the ’70s, preservationists disassembled its trading room and rebuilt it inside the Art Institute of Chicago. This monument to a bygone era of robber-baron capitalism made a curious place to experience two ensembles that measure success according to creative—or even cosmic—metrics rather than commercial ones. But both Body/Head and Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society prevailed, and MAGNET writer Bill Meyer and photographer Julia Dratel were there to bear witness.

If you need someone to put ballast and swing in your groove, Joshua Abrams is your man. He’s lent his bass presence to Prefuse 73, Sam Prekop, the Roots and countless jazz ensembles, but he puts the instrument aside when he takes the helm of the Natural Information Society. Abrams plays the guimbri, a Moroccan bass lute that can articulate a melodic lead while holding down the rhythm and is traditionally used in healing ceremonies. The variably sized NIS combines that beneficent imperative with elements of jazz and krautrock.

Abrams, harmonium player Lisa Alvarado, bass clarinetist Jason Stein and drummer Mikel Patrick Avery played just one piece, “Finite,” which covers two sides of the group’s forthcoming double LP, Mandatory Reality (Eremite). Abrams and Stein played intersecting figures reminiscent of the theme from Don Cherry’s “Brown Rice” over a squeezebox drone, inviting the audience to lose themselves in a trance state. But their appeal wasn’t purely cosmic; while the rest of the band played music that breathed like a living thing, Avery laid down a stiffer rhythm that split the difference between Can’s minimalist beats and straight-up disco. If you weren’t nodding, you were grooving.

Body/Head is guitarists Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth) and Bill Nace (free-agent collaborator with Chris Corsano, Paul Flaherty, Twig Harper and many more). Playing in front of a film screen, the duo blurred the boundaries between structured song and open-ended improvisation while comporting themselves with a grace that drew a few new lines between rock-star iconography and martial arts grace.

Each rocked back and forth, their movements corresponding to the waves of thick, distorted sound they drew out of their instruments while a slowed-down projection of the beach scene from Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye added another layer motion. Gordon’s voice plunged down a long tunnel of reverb, her distorted phrases leaving literal meaning behind to swim in the music’s tidal pull.

Whether stretching toward the microphone or bowing toward the amplifiers, Gordon’s movements were sonically essential, but also engaged in a dialectical exchange with decades of rock heroics. At one point, she stood on top of her amp, carefully swinging her guitar in circular motions that added yet more churn to the maelstrom.

In decades past, the chaos enacted in this room created and wiped out fortunes. Tonight, Natural Information Society and Body/Head offered two roads to transcendence.