Out In the Reeds With Beth Custer

Pioneering performer and composer has a busy January, with shows by Clarinet Thing and the reunited Trance Mission.

When people lament the passing of the weird, old San Francisco, Trance Mission isn’t necessarily what they have in mind, but the singular ensemble represents everything that made the city’s pre-Internet music scene such a creative hotbed. The first half of the 1990s was a wide-open era when artists of all stripes could find a $300 room in a rambling Mission District house, while Oakland and even Berkeley offered similarly bohemian-friendly digs. It’s not a coincidence that the profusion of clubs and venues brimmed with a disparate roster of wildly inventive bands like Mr. Bungle, Broun Fellinis, Deerhoof, New Klezmer Trio, Idiot Flesh, and Alphabet Soup.

Amongst this heady and hybrid menagerie, Trance Mission stood out as the most unlikely of combos, with a sound built on the starkly contrasting cadences of Beth Custer’s sinuous clarinet and Stephen Kent’s buzzing didjeridu. Performing with several different lineups, the group released four albums in the 1990s, took a multi-year hiatus, and then returned as an instrumental trio in the mid-Aughts with Los Angeles drummer Peter Valsamis. The relentlessly grooving combo completes its reboot at Yoshi’s on Monday, celebrating the release of Le Pendu, its first new album in two decades.

Over the years, the band’s mission has evolved and the trance-inducing sound has grown more potent, with an earthy new palette of rhythms and textures. The music still feels like it emanates from Kent’s guttural grooves, but where past Trance Mission albums captured the band’s roiling excursions, Le Pendu distills the tunes. “It has similarities, with sweeping, epic melodies over driving grooves,” Custer said. “I don’t really ‘write’ the music; we jam, and I come up with melodies. We shape pieces by improvising and experimenting.”

While Kent is best known for his pioneering work on didjeridu, the long, droning cylindrical horn created by the aboriginal people of Northern Australia, he’s also skilled on percussion and cello-sintir. Custer contributes on percussion and an array of reeds, particularly B flat, alto, bass clarinets.

Valsamis also doubles on percussion and provides subtle sonic elements on electronics. The results are often giddily intoxicating, as Custer’s clarinet lines dart and weave over the subterranean churn. The title track sets the agenda with a blast of ominous whimsy as Custer joyously soars around a disquieting thrum punctuated by the barking rasp of Kent’s didjeridu. On other tracks the addition of Anastasi Mavrides’s guitar work “launches Le Pendu into more of a jazz/funk realm,” Custer said.

The seeds for Trance Mission were planted in 1991, when Custer was on the road with Connie Champagne and her Tiny Bubbles. The tour manager Ron Gompertz, who went on to display his knack for combining the seemingly irreconcilable by codifying the portmanteau holiday Chrismukkah, kept playing a cassette of Lights in a Fat City because Kent’s pioneering fourth world ambient band was on an upcoming double bill with Champagne at a SOMA nightspot. Fat City’s unusual sound caught Custer’s ear.

“I took my demo tape to the gig and introduced myself to Stephen, gave him my cassette,” she recalls. “He called me the next day and we jammed in the Headlands Center for the Arts where I was artist in residence.”

They quickly forged a friendship and started performing at Radio Valencia as a duo. Trance Mission coalesced with the addition of Fat City percussionist Kenneth Newby and multi-instrumentalist John Loose, who added an international array of percussion and string instruments, including tar, bodhrán, tabla, kalimba, kanjira, and riq. The eponymous 1992 debut album introduced the band’s giddy grooves and puckish sense of humor (the opening track is “Bo Didgeley”). By the time Trance Mission released its fourth album, 1999’s live recording of its farewell concert at St. John’s in Berkeley A Day Out of Time (Schott Music), the lineup featured Eda Maxym on vocals and keyboards and Valsamis on drums, electronic percussion, dumbek, gongs, and djembe.

When Custer and Kent started performing as Trance Mission again they mostly worked as a duo, adding Valsamis into the mix whenever he could make it up from L.A. Annual gigs at the beloved Garden of Memory event at Chapel of the Chimes Oakland and InterMusic’s SF Music Day has kept the group in the Bay Area mix, but they intend the release of Le Pendu to put the band back on the road. One reason the group hasn’t worked more is that Kent and Custer aren’t lacking in other commitments.

A revolving roster of assignments has made Custer a major force in Bay Area arts. Drawing on a vivid palette of influences from jazz, folk, blues, Afro-Caribbean, and contemporary classical, she’s honed a style that has enhanced a tremendous array of creative endeavors, from the dance theater of the Joe Goode Performance Group to various productions by Intersection For the Arts’ Campo Santo to the classic 1929 Soviet silent film My Grandmother. She’s also founded and led numerous bands, like the all-star quartet Clarinet Thing. If Trance Mission sounds like the unrestrained id of the scene, Clarinet Thing is the cosmopolitan super ego, uniting Custer with fellow reed maestros Ben Goldberg, Harvey Wainapel, and Sheldon Brown. The group performs Jan. 19, kicking off St. Alban’s Episcopal Church’s Third Sunday Series.

Like Trance Mission, Clarinet Thing came together in the early 1990s, inspired by the ROVA Saxophone Quartet. But instead of extended improvisations, Clarinet Thing traffics in exquisite chamber jazz, captured on the acclaimed albums Cry, Want, and Agony Pipes and Misery Sticks. The repertoire reflects the musicians’ far-flung passions, from Brazilian choro and klezmer tunes to South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, Duke Ellington, Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk, Carla Bley, and clarinet greats John Carter and Benny Goodman. Oakland reed specialist Sheldon Brown, who can be found most Sundays playing in the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra, said he was drawn to Clarinet Thing by the “openness and willingness to experiment and take chances, and high level of musicianship all around.” 

Trance Mission, Jan. 13, 8 p.m., $21-49, Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland, 510-238-9200, Yoshis.com

Clarinet Thing, Jan. 19, 4 p.m., $20-25 (children under 12 free), St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, 1501 Washington Ave., Albany, 510-525-1716, StAlbansAlbany.org.

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