A Little Pre-Rapture Rapture

Last night, the night before the Rapture officially hits the fan (at something like 6pm today, if I’m not mistaken), I had considered staying home and praying. But then I saw that Amendola vs. Blades were playing in the Mission and I thought, fuck that shit.

So, off I went to the Red Poppy Art House, a tiny little venue on the corner of 23rd and Folsom that has some of the best music concerts you’re likely to hear in this city. Amendola vs. Blades promised a night of “sonic deity conjuring” and the duo did not disappoint.

Amendola vs. Blades is jazz drummer Scott Amendola and Hammond B3 organ player Wil Blades. As composers and bandleaders, Amendola plays with the likes of Nels Cline, Jeff Parker, Larry Ochs, Ben Goldberg, and Devin Hoff, and Blades with New Orleans drummer Stanton Moore, Billy Martin from Medeski, Martin, & Wood, and legendary jazz drummer Idris Muhammad, amongst many others.

The two have been playing together for five years, though they first started collaborating musically back in 2003. In the Spring of 2006, Amendola undertook a project to adapt the 1966 Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn Far East Suite, making an arrangement for drums and organ. Naturally, he thought of rising star Wil Blades for the organ part and since then, the two have been creating a buzz around town as Amendola vs. Blades.

Many of tunes they started with in 2006, like “Blue Pepper” and “Tourist Point of View” from the Ellington/Strayhorn suite, are still on the repertoire these days, as well as some Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk interpretations, and a lot of original compositions by both Amendola and Blades.

The duo glides seamlessly between tracks that range from straight ahead jazz and grooving funk to more experimental pieces, some sounding closer to glitch or IDM than jazz, music that Amendola describes as “almost post-electronic.”

Despite being packed into the Red Poppy like sardines, it was obvious from watching how bodies were moving in their seats that everyone was loving the musical journey. Indeed, one friend (a fellow dancer) was having great difficulty sitting still beside me. “This is torture,” he groaned. “I want to dance!!”

God was obviously punishing us by making us sit in such cramped quarters while this amazing music was being played. We did attempt an inconspicuous chair dance together, but when a piece of art work was almost knocked off the wall, we returned to a more contained rhythmic head-nodding and resisted further temptation.

Whatever about the audience, the performers certainly have no problem playing in such an intimate venue.

“There’s just something about having everyone right on top of you,” says Blades. “We’ve played shows here where it’s even more packed than this. There was one particular show that was just crazy. People were literally right up against the organ and all around us and behind us against that piano.”

The Red Poppy Art House is definitely a favorite place for the duo to play. “It’s a really comfortable, friendly, fun environment,” says Amendola. “Easily, we’ve had some of our best shows here,” adds Blades.

“Playing small venues, for our music, gives us—gives the music—so much more room to breathe,”Amendola continues. “There’s so many more possibilities. . . This place is just really special.”

This night too was really special, and not merely because it was quite possibly our last. It’s hard to convey how rich and full a sound the two musicians are able to create together. At times Blades’ organ makes you think you’re listening to a bass and guitar with Amendola’s drums, at other times the two manage to conjure the impression that the whole Ellington orchestra is present. With lots of improvised tempo changes and playful exchanges between the two, their manifest joy playing this music together is easily transferred to the audience.

At one point in the evening, I felt myself possessed by the Holy Spirit and thought the ascension to Heaven had come a day early. But then I remembered I was probably amongst the damned. Good thing I had not wasted my last night at home praying.

The coming Rapture has not deterred the duo from making plans for the future, however. With an Amendola vs. Blades album in the works—they will be starting to work on that this Summer—and more gigs lined up, there are, in theory at least, more opportunities to see the two play together soon.

Blades, especially, seemed confident of his own post-Rapture chances. “I play organ,” he reminded us with a smile. “I actually play at a church every Sunday. . .  I’ve been playing hymns almost every Sunday that I’ve been in town for the last six years. I’m good.”

Amendola vs. Blades are playing tomorrow, God willing, at Blades’s weekly residence at the Madrone Lounge in San Francisco, which each Sunday features Blades and a rotating cast of local musicians. You can also catch Amendola vs. Blades on July 7th at the Starry Plough in Berkeley.