Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Day 1: Vacuum Tree Head and More

We conclude our reverse-order look at the Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Festival that took place at the Finnish Kaleva Hall in Berkeley about two months ago. This day featured Vacuum Tree Head among several other acts.

Vacuum Tree Head
[Photo by Karen de la Cuesta]

This was among the best Vacuum Tree Head shows I have experienced since joining the band, in terms of energy and musical tightness. The rhythm section, anchored by Justin Markovits on drums and John Shiurba on bass functioned well as a unit and provided a foundation for the rest of the band. We had three horn players: Joshua Marshal, Jason Bellenkes and Richard Lesnik. Our guitar section featured Richard Corny, and Michael de la Cuesta, who also was part of the synth/keyboard section of the band with me. And Jason Berry ran the show with new tunes, new arrangements and interstitial entertainment. We will have a full video of our set soon along with a more detailed review, but for now here is a little clip courtesy of our friend Rick Rees.

As mentioned in previous articles the overarching theme of HSP2017 was “A Celebration of Post-Beefheart Art.” The first two acts of the evening took the theme quite seriously. Earspray projected videos along with Beefhart clips mixed with live improvisations.


The group features Ann O’Rourke on electronics and video, Carlos Jennings on electronics, and Mark Pino on percussion. Mark returned in Crow Crash Radio, which also featured Brian Strang on guitar Andrew Joron on theremin along with guest Garrett Caples on vocals.

Crow Crash Radio

Like Earspray, Crow Crash Radio worked the Beefhart theme directly into the contact of their set, with Caples channeling him in his vocal sound and style as the band covered Diddy Wah Diddy and other songs. If there was one thing that didn’t work, it was not being able to hear the vocals well, though perhaps that was part of the concept.

The band performances contrasted sharply with a quiet so set by Jakob Pek on guitar. He uses extended techniques on the instrument, preparations, and electronics to create unusual soundscapes. The sound is mostly long tones and timbres, but punctuated by percussive elements as well.

Jakob Pek

The final set of the evening brought Lost Planet to the stage.

Lost Planet

This band, which features Dave Slusser on winds and electronics, Thomas Scandura on drums, and Len Paterson and Steve Clarke on guitars, mixed loud rock elements with space jazz for an energetic set. In some ways, they combined elements prominent in the previous band sets of the evening.

It was fun to play with VTH on this night and hear the other groups, as I also did with CDP on night 3. We would like to thank Mika Pontecorvo for organizing this event, as well as Elijah Ponteocorvo, Kersti Abrams, Mark Pino and everyone else who followed teared to make it a success.

CDP and Lingua Incognita Session at All Tomorrow’s After Parties

Last week we reported on the the first night of NextNow Presents All Tomorrow’s After Parties that featured a performance by Vacuum Tree Head. Today we look at the next night of that festival, which took place on June 4 in Berkeley.

CDP Trio

That event marked the debut of one of my new bands, Census Designated Place (or CDP). For this set, I was joined by Mark Pino on drums and Rent Romus on alto sax. The concept for this group is to combine my increased focus on jazz and funk with experimental sounds and ideas. We did two compositions of mine, plus an improvisation based on a graphical score painted by Mark. You can see and hear our full performance in this video.

CDP at Berkeley Arts, June 2016 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

Overall I was quite pleased with the set, and we all had a lot of fun. There is still some work to do tightening up the tunes (particularly White Wine), but that will come with time and practice. We were at our best with the rhythmic and idiomatic improvisation sections in all three pieces, especially the straight-eighth jazz and “disco” sections. And Rent did a tremendous job sitting in with the group, bringing a unique sound and style that I hope to continue in future performances.

All three of us also participated in the Lingua Incognita Session a project conceived by Mika Pontecorvo that also debuted at this event. The large ensemble featured two bassists (Eli Pontecorvo and Robert Kehlmann ), two drummers (Mark Pino and Aaron Levin, four wind players (Rent Romus, Kersti Abrams, Jaroba and Joshua Marshal, trumpet (Tony Passarell), keyboard (myself), and experimental electronics (Jack Hertz).


This was quite a cast of characters to put together in a single group, let alone a purely improvisational group that had not rehearsed together before. And it could have pure cacophony, but everyone did their part to make this work. We started with a concept based on A Love Supreme, with different performers moving in and out of the texture, which moved between sections of rhythmic jamming and more abstract tones. I know I had a lot of fun, as did others, and we hope to do this again sometime.

The day began quite a bit earlier with Shiva X, which featured Tony Passarell on tenor saxophone and Robert Kehlmann – both of whom were part of the Lingua Incognito set – along with Jim Frink on drums.


This group has some conceptual similarities with CDP, combining noisy elements with steady rhythmic drums and bass, but with a more freeform upper layer provided by Passarell’s saxophone. My favorite moments were when things converged on a groove.

Shiva X was followed by Trois Chapeaux. The group featured Jaroba, Kevin Corcoran and Jorge Bachmann (with regular member Tania Chen absent on this occasion).

Trois Chapeaux

This was a much more abstract sound, combining both small electronics and acoustic elements along with Bachmann on modular synth. Recognizable sounds and fragments came in and out of focus throughout the set, while clouds of noise and complexity coalesced and then dissipated.

Jack Hertz was next with a solo electronic performance. Sitting alone and unassuming at the from the room, he brought forth a variety of sounds from synthesizers, recordings, and other sources into a continuous force of music and noise. There were some soft but still delightfully crunchy moments in there as well.


The following set shifted from electronic to acoustic, but in such a way that many of the same sonic elements were preserved. There is probably few acoustic duos that sound as “electronic” as T.D. Skatchit, featuring Tom Nunn and David Michalak on sketch boxes.


The sounds of the sketch box are quite unique, and particularly tuned with the musicians who play it the moment. But there is still a tremendous variety.

Then it was time for Reconnaissance Fly, featuring the new lineup that now includes Brett Carson on keyboards along with Polly Moller (flute, guitar, voice), Tim Walters (bass), Rich Lesnick (winds) and Larry-the-O (drums).

Reconnaissance Fly

The played a variety familiar tunes from the band’s catalog, including a couple from the first album, the recent regular rotation, and a couple of brand new songs. The overall sound of the group has coalesced into something that has strong jazz elements also quite whimsical and esoteric.

After CDP was v’Maa, a “drone band based upon Sami shamanism and spider mythology” (as described on Mark Pino’s blog). The group featured video and music with Mika Pontecorvo, Eli Pontecorvo, Kersti Abrams and Mark Pino. They were joined on this occasion by Lau Nau on voice.


After the intensity of many of the previous sets (including CDP), there was a more subdued quality, a bit more floating and meditative. The swells and ebbs in the overall texture worked will with the changes in the video; and it was a great way to relax musically after performing.

Next up was the “Bill Wolter Project”, featuring Bill Wolter on guitar, Moe! Staiano on percussion, Ivor Holloway on horns, and Ron Gruesbeck on synth.


The entire set, which was shrouded in mystery ahead of the evening, focused on made-up tunings anchored by Bill on fretless guitar. The music unfolded truly as an experiment, as the performers moved in out of various sounds within the confines of the new tuning.

The Bill Wolter Project was followed by Earspray, featuring Ann O’Rourke, Carlos Jennings and Mark Pino, who is definitely the hardest working man in the new music scene.


The set was a full explosion of noise, lights and video, made more stark by the performers’ lab coats. The sounds were a mixture of samples, synthesis and drums.

The final set of the evening was Tri-Cornered Tent Show. The current line-up for band features Philip Everett, Ray Shaeffer, Anthony Flores and Valentina O.

Tri Cornered Tent Show

As with previous times I have heard the group, there was a foundation of explosive electronics and drum phases and free improvisation that moved between disparate rhythms and melodic lines. And there is a theatricality to the performance. But this performance with Valentina O was more cabaret style with humor and a certain intimacy. Between vocals, drum hits, and electronic sounds from Everett there were bits of quiet and silence perfectly timed for the theater of of the set.

This was an exhausting day of music, both as a performer and an audience member, but a rewarding one. I’m glad we stayed around for the entire day to hear everyone and the wide variety of sounds and styles. Thanks again to Mika Pontecorvo and Eli Pontecovro for putting on this evening, bring together so many musicians for a good cause.