The Handmaid’s Cello
Vintage punk: In his final years, composer John Cage all but predicted the rise of a new type of troubadour: soloists playing original music with portable electronics. On March 9, Unwoman gracefully fulfilled Cage’s prophecy at Crocker Art Museum’s monthly event series, ArtMix.
A noisy, imbibing audience—mostly in ’20s attire for the evening’s “Vintage Swank” theme—appreciated the Bay Area songwriter, singer and cellist, but they could have put their drinks down more often to listen during the two half-hour sets. Accompanying herself on stand-up electric cello, she nevertheless sang passionately and unflappably to her would-be flappers.
Taking her name from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Unwoman (a.k.a. Erica Mulkey) insists she is herself onstage and not channeling a character. Otherwise, she also enjoys dressing in neo-Victorian garb (outer corset, hoop skirt and feather hairpin), while her songs calmly lilt, supported by classical bowing techniques and electronic sampling. Even if some goth, post-punk, or steampunk scenes have claimed her, she alone owns her pleasantly dry mix of free verse and rhymes against repetitive rock chord progressions and patterns.
All but one of twelve songs were original, and of these, four appear on her newest album released last month, My Kingdom As Great. Its mesmerizing title song borrows dialogue from the 1986 film Labyrinth, in which a young girl breaks free of a manipulative goblin played by David Bowie, setting it to a Pachelbel-like canon.
In the same vein, “Bad Boy” best demonstrates Unwoman’s cool but sharpened feistiness, using a plodding string quartet accompaniment to rebuke the “Mr. Rochester” character from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre—after all, he is a married man preying on a teenaged girl in his employ.
With understated irony, she convincingly covered Dessa’s “The Chaconne,” which references Bach’s famous solo piece often performed on cello.
For “Flowering Vines,” a waltz aptly critiques the naïve anarchy of author Hakim Bey. His ideologies dizzily spin and drift away from any lingering punk sympathies.
Electric hip-hop: Acoustic loop artist Symytry swung his guitar behind his back and shuffled over to his leopard-print-covered drum. He beat it while singing, a midsong transition that elicited a cheer from the crowd. Opening a Saturday night showcase at the Starlite Lounge, Symytry blended rhythmic guitar, pedal loops and smooth vocals in an effective one-man-band performance—despite a technical issue with the backup beat that was resolved after the first two acts.
That night, Starlite Lounge played host to a packed showcase of local talent, headlined by Sparks Across Darkness and T.I.P. Vicious. A modest but engaged crowd turned out to support the local rappers, DJs and soulful songcrafters who blended styles of acoustic, electronic, indie rock and hip-hop. Capably emceed by Edgar Granados and DJ Darealwordsound, the lineup flowed seamlessly from one act to the next.
Following Symytry, rapper Ase Royal delivered a heartfelt and impassioned performance. His colorful dashiki outfit demanded attention, which he maintained throughout a politically charged set. During a performance dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement, Ase Royal contrasted his style of hip-hop with popular party music: “They want you to turn up, I want you to turn in,” he rapped. Ase Royal gave shoutouts to Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, assassinated in a raid orchestrated by the FBI in 1969, and civil rights activist Medgar Evers, decrying a “war on black leaders.”
Amateur rapper Alex Salveson gave a heartfelt performance. In verse, he divulged his experience as a struggling performer in Sacramento and relayed the story of a car crash and the new perspective on life it gave him.
Caliscope, a self-described “ratchet ass indie rock band,” delivered an energized set combining hip-hop, live beats and acoustic and electric guitar, reminiscent of the Denver, Colo., band the Flobots.
Rounding out the evening, Anthony Giovanini as Sparks Across Darkness and rapper-and-trip-hop artist T.I.P. Vicious delivered a solid performance, supported by funky electronic beats that energized the small but enthusiastic crowd.