Vacuum Tree Head and Moe Staiano Ensemble at The UPTOWN

Today we look back at the show featuring Vacuum Tree Head and the Moe Staiano Ensemble at The UPTOWN in Oakland. It was also the subject of our most recent episode of CatSynth TV. 

This was the most ambitious Vacuum Tree Head show to date, at least during the time I have been involved in the band.  There were ten musicians involved: Jason Berry conducting, Steve Adams (of ROVA fame) on baritone saxophone, Jason Bellenkes on various woodwinds, Amanda Chaudhary on keyboard, Richard Corny on guitar, Michael de la Cuesta on guitar and synth, Justin Markovits on drums, Joshua Marshall on saxophones, Amy X Neuburg on voice and blippo box, and John Shiurba on bass. 

Vacuum Tree Head.  Photo by Crystal Lee

The band delivered an impressive and truly dynamic performance, going through a diverse mix of styles from our current repertoire.  And that fact that the core of the lineup has stabilized means that the tunes are always getting tighter and more idiomatic, especially our “big” numbers Nubdug and EMS Deluxe – I always have a lot of fun in the latter with a big 1970s style electric-piano solo.  But this set was more than just music – it continued the band’s pattern of adding new spectacle at each show.  This time, we had a juggler, Colin Hogan, and my friend and frequent collaborator Serena Toxicat held up signs for audience participation.  The juggling was a unique moment, with Hogan tossing lighted beanbags and other objects as we played a new version of the tune Marlon Brando

Overall, I had a wonderful time playing, as I’m pretty sure the entire band did.  And we got a great response from the audience at The UPTOWN.  Next, it was time for the Moe Staiano Ensemble to take the stage.

Moe Staiano Ensemble

This was also an ambitious set, building on Moe’s previous ideas but with an even larger ensemble of guitars:  Jay Korber, William Bohrer, Melne Murphy, Damon Wood, Robin Walsh, Drew Wheeler, Bill Wolter, John Shiurba, Josh Pollock, David James, Marc Zollinger, and Karl Evangelista.  That, my friends, is a lot of guitars!  But they were also joined by Steve Lew on bass and Jeff Lievers on drums.

Moe’s large scale composition followed a classical form of three movements: a loud opening fanfare, a calm and moody second movement, and amore dynamic finale.  It featured many of the idiomatic elements I have come to know and appreciate in his compositions from my time playing in Surplus 1980, including the repetitions coming in and out of phase.  During the first movement, there was a driving eight-note patterns with phasing that created an intense but pointillated wall of sound.  The second movement, which contained slower notes and lots of open space, was exceptionally beautiful, and my favorite part of the performance.  You can hear some of it in our video.

It was a wonderful night of music in Oakland, and I was happy to be a part of it both as a performance and an audience member.  There was a fairly decent turnout, especially for a Tuesday.  It’s not every day you can get this cast of musicians on a stage at once, as both groups did, but I look forward to the next time they do.

Cat Cartoonists on #NationalCartoonistsDay

 

The fifth of May marks a great many things. It is the birthday of Karl Marx – indeed, today marks his bicentennial! It is also a day when many Americans inexplicably get drunk and culturally insensitive in celebration of the Mexican defeat of the French Empire in the town of Puebla. And finally, it is National Cartoonists Day.  And in honor of this occasion, we celebrate many noted cat cartoonists.

We begin with B Kilban.  An artist originally from Connecticut, he got his start as a cartoonist here in San Francisco, drawing for Playboy.  It was at Playboy where his distinctive cat cartoons were discovered by editor Michelle Urry.  This led to his most well-known book, Cat.  You have probably seen his cats both in formal cartoons and adorning many products.  Kilban passed away in 1990, but his legacy lives on through his books and syndication of his images.  You can find out more at his official website www.eatmousies.com.

 

 

Of course, an article on cat cartoonists must include Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield.  Davis grew up on a farm in Indiana with his parents, brother, and 25 cats.  While the main human character in Davis’ cartoons, Jon Arbuckle is also a cartoonist who grew up on a farm, the spoiled and overweight Garfield seems nothing like a farm cat.  Indeed, his disdain for the concept of catching mice is a frequent topic of the strips.  Many an orange male cat has been named “Garfield” in the character’s honor.

 

 

One of the best-known works of Japanese manga artist Makoto Kobayashi also features an orange cat. What’s Michael? chronicles the adventures of a shorthair tabby named Michael and his many feline friends.  It was originally released in serial form in Japan’s Weekly Morning manga magazine, but it now available in the U.S. as well via Dark Horse Comics.  The stories are a mix of the mundane and surreal, with Michael sometimes appearing differently than the orange shorthair title cat, and sometimes even dying in certain episodes.

 

New Yorker cartoonist George Booth is best known his complex doodle-like cartoons featuring befuddled humans and their pets.  They are a mainstay of the magazine and synonymous with the “New Yorker style” of cartooning.  While the animal most frequently featured in his work is a fat dog with big ears, there are often cats as well.

 

 

And then there is Fritz the Cat, created by the legendary R. Crumb.  Fritz originally appeared in Crumb’s homemade comic book “Cat Life”.  Originally based on the family cat, Fritz became anthropomorphic in later iterations, evolving into the hedonistic con-artist character that was a mainstay of underground comix in the 1960s.  Fritz’s adventures in a New York-like mega-city populated entirely by anthropomorphic animals often devolved into chaos with unusual sexual escapades.   In the 1970s, Fritz the Cat was made into an animated feature film by Ralph Bakshi.

 

 

 

 

Fat Freddy's CatAnother underground comix artist Gilbert Shelton created a well-known feline character.  Known simply as “Fat Freddy’s Cat”, he initially appeared in Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers strip about a trio of stoner characters in the 1960s before getting his own strip.  A standalone series, The Adventures of Fat Freddy’s Cat was published in the 1970s and expanded in a 1980s release.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joann Sfar is a French comics artist.  Influenced by the European comics artists of the 20th century including the great Moebius (Jean Giraud), he has a distinctive style that is at once more realistic and fanciful.  One of his most well-known series is The Rabbi’s Cat, first released as a comic book in 2005 and later adapted into a film in 2011, which he directed.  The main feline character is a cat who has the ability to speak and lives with a rabbi and his daughter in the Jewish community of 1920s Algeria.  Sfar’s Jewish heritage runs through many of his works, but no more directly than in The Rabbi’s Cat.  In addition to the books, we at CatSynth recommend seeing the film (which is gorgeous) in the original French.

 

 

 

 

Another classic of feline cartoons is Krazy Kat, by George Herriman.  It had a long run as a comic strip in American newspapers from 1913 to 1944 when Herriman died.  The strip was based around the ostensibly simple cat-and-mouse trip, with the cat named Krazy being taunted and tormented by a mouse Ignatz who is often shown throwing bricks at Krazy’s head.  Krazy speaks in a very stylized mixture of English and other languages and is of indeterminate gender – though inexplicably smitten with Ignatz.

And finally, we would be remiss if we did not include our very own J.B., author the Mensa Cats series that appears right here on CatSynth.

You can see many more episodes of the Mensa Cats on these pages via this link.  We also encourage interested reads to find out more about all the artists discussed in this article and to read their comics.

Mensa Cat Monday: Making a Living Through Art

Mensa Cats: Morton Feldman and Milton Friedman

Today’s Mensa Cats cartoon by J.B. touches a dilemma many of us face as artists.  Can we make a living from our art?  Sadly, in the late-stage capitalism envisioned by Milton Friedman, it is particularly challenging by Morton Feldman.  We at CatSynth have day jobs.

New Cartoon: Boink Boink Basement!

Sam Sam makes her cartoon debut in Boink Boink Basement!, our latest offering from artist J.B.

We think she fits right on with the myriad other fascinating elements in this surreal drawing.  And snoopervising is one of the things she does best in creative settings, as can be seen in this previous post.

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando is a controversial figure in contemporary circles, but we did some great movies a long time ago (followed by some not-so-great ones, then a couple more classics, and then some really awful ones). But his work has intertwined with many things at CatSynth over the past couple of years. Consider this cartoon by J.B. (Jason Berry), part of our extended Mensa Cat series.

Marlin Brando

We leave the joke as an exercise to the reader. 😸

There is also the tune “Marlon Brando” initially composed by Jason Berry for Vacuum Tree Head, which I redid for my own band CDP.  Here is a live performance of us playing it at the Make Out Room in San Francisco.

CDP Marlon Brando May 1 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

And finally, our friends at the Cat Museum of San Francisco shared this feline photo today.


Mensa Cat Monday: Butoh

bhutto butoh

Butoh Boutros Ghali

Today’s Mensa Cat strips explore the world of butoh dance.  By J.B.

Mellow Tron and Mellotron

We bring you another from the latest series of cartoons by J.B., this featuring a classic Mellotron.  In particular, it appears to be the iconic M400 model, or perhaps an Mk4.

You can read our recent review from the Mellotron booth at NAMM here.  We also featured the instrument in a popular CatSynth TV episode.


Mensa Cat Monday: Zeno’s Paradoxes

Mensa Cats: Zeno's Paradoxes

We bring you a brand new Mensa Cats cartoon by J.B. (that’s Jason Berry of Vacuum Tree Head).  This one expresses not one but two of Zeno’s famous paradoxes in a single frame.

The first is the better-known Dichotomy Paradox, from which the punchline derives.  In order to walk into the bar, Zeno (or any of the other patrons) must first walk halfway; and to travel from the halfway point, he must travel half of that distance, and then half of that distance, and so on.  It seems that this process of walking halfway would continue forever and one would not arrive and one’s destination, yet we know in reality that we do.

The second paradox is the Arrow Paradox.  Consider the frame frozen in time, as indicated by the liquid in mid spill behind the young lady cat, or the multiple instances of Zeno along his path.  At any given moment, there is no motion. Zeno’s position does change between moment, but there is an infinite number of other frames, each with a fixed position.  As copies/frames of Zeno get closer and closer together, the change in time between them gets infinitesimally small.  Yet the process 0f adding up these infinite frames with zero motion in each results in Zeno walking halfway into the bar.

The two paradoxes (and the third, commonly referred to as “Achilles and the tortoise”) are closely related.  The first deals with infinitesimal subdivisions of space, while the second deals with infinitesimal subdivisions of time.  The key is that while any infinitesimal quantity is smaller than any quantity we can express, it is always still greater than zero.  And adding up an infinite number of infinitesimal quantities can sometimes yield a finite number.

Take the halving process in the Dichotomy paradox.  Zeno moves half this distance, then half of that, and so on.  This can be expressed as an infinite sum.

As one gets closer to infinity, the sum gets closer and closer to one.  More formally, we can say that as we approach infinity, the sum goes to 1.  So an infinite number of subdivisions still reaches our goal of the full distance.

This process of applying operations to an infinite number of infinitesimal subdivisions is the principal behind calculus, and a marvelous thing to behold once one gets used to it.  The mathematics does not necessarily answer the metaphysical questions raised by these ancient paradoxes, but it is what most interests us at CatSynth.  It’s been a while since we last shared the joy and beauty of mathematics on these pages, but it is high time we resume the practice.

 

Ornette Coleman Birthday Tribute

Today is the birthday of the great Ornette Coleman.  In tribute, we are reposting this comic by J.B.

 

 

New Cartoon: Motto (Langston Hughes)

A new comic by J.B. based on a poem by Langston Hughes.