Throughout his globetrotting, Todd Clouser manages to make it each year to The Divided Sky in Meyers.
“I get the feeling that people do their own thing here and there is a real vibe,” Clouser said. “They seem to appreciate some kind of adventure in music, which you don’t necessarily tend to find everywhere. It’s not like going to a giant city and being suffocated.”
Clouser is adventurous to music as Snowshoe Thompson was to mail delivery. The Divided Sky is a tiny, artsy, second-story restaurant at the base of Echo Summit, which Thompson traveled in the 1850s.
The guitarist just played 18 shows in 21 days with his trio, A Love Electric, in Germany and Italy before returning to his Mexico City home, where he performed at a major springtime festival. For his annual stop in the Tahoe area to play a show at D-Sky — and two more at the jazz-friendly Moody’s Bistro in Truckee — Clouser enlisted San Francisco drummer Pat Korte and Truckee bassist Sam Ravenna to play rhythm.
Many of the 18 folks in plaid with knit caps were chatting at their tables in the dark room when Korte and Ravenna began. The musicians read sheet music to the song “Martha’s Fever,” a tune Clouser released in 2016 with one of his many bands, Magnet Animals.
Strapped with a Gibson electric guitar, Clouser wore a pork-pie hat, and he listened.
“I just want to feel how those guys play together and feel what volume they are going to be playing at, how much space there’s going to be in the music and react to it,” Clouser said. “Then it becomes a conversation between the three of us. It takes a couple of minutes to feel it out and get comfortable.”
A couple of minutes after Clouser began to pick notes, the chatting had stopped. More people entered from the door beside the stage.
“’Martha’s Fever’ has a reggae kind of feel,” Ravenna said. “But it’s not in the regular 4-4 (measure). It’s 6-4. It was a comfortable place for me and Pat because we’ve played a lot of dub reggae. It was familiar but unique at the same time.”
After many of the songs played during the set, which lasted nearly two hours including an encore, Clouser would feign ostentatiousness, “That was a world debut.” But it was a fact. He will tour Europe three times this year. Next month, he returns to the place he grew up, Minneapolis, to make another live record with renowned keyboardist John Medeski, who, like Clouser stretches sounds to the avant-garde.
You won’t hear too many chords from Clouser’s guitar. Instead, he’ll scrape strings or simply run his fingers down its neck. The academic term is extended techniques – playing an instrument in an atypical fashion.
“I am not necessarily thinking in scales or even tonally,” Clouser said. “I’m just trying to create different textures, different sounds. It’s something I like to do to keep it interesting for myself. There are times when your instrument can feel limited because you play it for so much time you tend to get these patterns and habits you can get a little bored with it. So finding different ways to get sound out of the guitar is exciting for me and it gives the music its own color.”
An avid reader of William S. Burroughs and beat poetry, Clouser recites lyrics through a harmonica microphone. The tinny vocal tones topped by raps on Korte’s snare and over Ravenna’s pounding bass set the scene. Positively bohemian.
Clouser recently worked on a project in Oaxaca with Anne Waldman, who collaborated with Allen Ginsberg and founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
“It reinvigorated my love for that poetry and that era and that school of thought combining improvisation and jazz music, social commentary,” Clouser said. “All these things that are still inspiring me.”
It was the first Divided Sky appearance for Ravenna. Like Clouser, he studied at Berklee College of Music.
“It was really, really fun playing with Todd and Patrick, too,” he said. “I love how open of a mind he has and how little structure he puts in place. He sketches out the idea for the groove but nothing too specific. He’s very open to the interpretation of the groups.”
Clouser was happy, too, playing new songs in a live setting.
“Playing with new guys is fun for me,” he said. “Finding where it might be able to go, as opposed to trying to recreate something that I do with other people. Sometimes it’s more comfortable for everybody if there’s not a right way to be doing it yet. It was totally an adventure but that’s what we wanted.”
— Tim Parsons