By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — One of the longest running experimental-rock outfits in the Bay Area, Oxbow has gone from clearing rooms in the early ’90s with it’s squalling, abrasive music and the disturbing, sometimes confrontational onstage performance of singer Eugene Robinson to become an acclaimed mainstay on San Francisco’s fringe music scene.
Robinson first collaborated with Oxbow guitarist and main musical arranger Niko Wenner when he joined the singer’s artrock-meets-hardcore band Whipping Boy in time to contribute to the group’s final full album The Third Secret of Fatima in 1985. The far more unconventional Oxbow began strictly as a recording project late in the decade. Former Whipping Boy drummer Dan Adams switched to bass for the band while drumming chores were split by Greg Davis and Tom Dobrov (Davis would take over full time in 1993 after Dobrov’s departure).
Formed around the concept of musical freedom with no commercial aspirations, Oxbow mixed elements of noise rock that echoed Nick Cave’s early band the Birthday Party and NYC sonic extremists Swans as well as such diverse inspirations as blues (in Wenner’s screaming, dive-bombing bottleneck solos), dissonant modern classical, punk and metal. The cacophonous musical bed was matched by Robinson’s wailing, unhinged delivery of multi-tracked vocals that sound like avant-garde singer Diamanda Galas channeling the right Reverend Al Green.
The band’s dense and challenging early albums found a core of fans drawn to the extremism of the music, including noted recording engineer and Big Black/Shellac guitarist Steve Albini who would help track Oxbow’s even more ambitious efforts, 1995’s Let Me Be a Woman and 1997’s cinematic Serenade in Red. The latter album featured a guest spot from UK chanteuse Marianne Faithful on a harrowing cover of Willie Dixon’s “Insane Asylum.”
In the first decade of the new millennium, Oxbow only issued two proper studio albums — An Evil Heat in 2002 on Neurot Records and the conceptual opus The Narcotic Story on Hydra Head — but the group also branched out into film with the release of the tour documentary Music For Adults. The film followed a 2002 Oxbow tour through Europe and some of Robinson’s more physical confrontations with concertgoers who decided to test out his reputation for brawling (the MMA-trained singer would publish an acclaimed first-hand account of his exploration of combat, Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About A**-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your A** Kicked for Asking, in 2007).
The band would spend the better part of a decade working on their long-awaited recording The Thin Black Duke , but Oxbow has also delved into a variety of configurations, performing as an acoustic quartet as well as a stripped-down duo of just Wenner and Robinson. The pair has also toured Europe and played Birmingham, England’s 2012 Supersonic Festival backed by a full chamber ensemble billed as the Oxbow Orchestra. Despite longtime record label Hydra Head having gone out of business, the imprint would come out of dormancy to release The Thin Black Duke in 2017. Filling out their sound with meticulously arranged horns and strings that give Robinson’s menacing vocal ruminations and the band’s foreboding tunes a sweeping, cinematic scope, The Think Black Duke was hailed by many as the quartet’s greatest achievement yet, The dense, dark-hearted journey of an album made numerous best of lists and affirmed Oxbow’s place in the vanguard of modern experimental rock. The band would tour Europe extensively since its release, making numerous festival appearances including a celebrated live collaboration with German free-jazz saxophone legend Peter Brötzmann at the Moers Festival last year.
The group played a special acoustic performance at the Lab in May of 2016 a year before the album came out, but this show at Mission District club the Chapel Tuesday night will mark the first time Oxbow has played in San Francisco since the release of The Thin Black Duke. The band is joined by local post-metal stalwarts Kowloon Walled City. Crafting a compelling mix of minimalist ambient drone and ferocious intensity that recalls the kind of feral noise rock being released on Touch and Go and AmRep during the ’90s, the quartet is working on a follow-up to it’s celebrated third album Grievances for Neurot Recordings (the imprint run by SF experimental metal heroes Neurosis) that came out in 2015.
Oxbow with Kowloon Walled City
Tuesday, January 29, 8 p.m. $17-$22