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Few sounds in music are as instantly recognizable as the searching sting of guitarist Bill Orcutt and the cyclical propulsion of drummer Chris Corsano. At the same time, every single performance or recording I’ve heard by the duo has been markedly different, discovering new paths with a given set of tools. For more than a decade now they’ve been meeting up to instigate visceral sonic journeys without a map, engaging in elliptical dialogues with one another, but more often conjuring twinned excursions that occur with a kind of telepathic independence. They don’t need to plan or discuss what will happen when they get together. They simply jump in and see where things go, pushing and pulling when necessary, yet more often letting each other roam freely with the knowledge that they’ve a rapport that can weather all storms.
The performance captured on Play at Duke was taped at the von der Heyden Studio Theater in the Rubenstein Arts Center on the campus of Duke University. The set closed out a three-day festival celebrating the 21st anniversary of Three Lobed Records, and the music they made feels utterly galvanic, a fitting conclusion by turns triumphant and bloodied. The set clocks in at just under 26 minutes but there’s nothing lacking, nothing slight. The best performances fuck with time, as this sublime encounter does. The duo were in an obvious flow straight out the gate, with Orcutt unleashing fat, fragmented arpeggios that morph from anthemic chords to flickering long tones—tense moments of repose that anticipate some new digression a la Hendrix. In the first of the three “Play at Duke” the duo packs in so many discrete ideas and dialogues that it’s hard to believe they only needed eight minutes to get it done.
Orcutt and Corsano sets are thrilling, in part, because we don’t know what will happen. Will they gel, butt heads, or get cranky. The guitarist sometimes delves into his Harry Pussy roots and unleashes a post-hardcore sally to shake things up, whether it seems necessary or not, but with this particular set there’s no doubt that the pair is sync. Ideas, motifs, needling lines (shadowed, of course, by Orcutt’s wordless falsetto screamed out into the air) pile up with pure compositional logic, each new melodic theme or textural divot flowing out of the previous one with remarkable ease and fluidity. Both musicians can access all sorts of traditions at the blink of an eye. The second piece opens explosively, with Corsano delivering a singular kind of flailing energy that’s nevertheless completely liquid, while Orcutt jerks between post-no wave skree, ominously prescient chords that channel the aggression of AC/DC and Hound Dog Taylor, and upper register stabs that that both tap into some primordial wellspring of the blues and fling clusters of sound at gravity, seeking to be free of our planet’s limitations. The album’s final piece begins with repose, a breath-catching reset of contemplative tenderness that gradually opens up, the duo teetering at the edge of an explosion that never really arises, as a lyric quality manages to ride the cresting wave of energy, cutting back- and-forth into a sudden, crystal-clear denouement that feels like destiny.