Saturday, February 12, 2011

Four Hands of Ten: Paul Slavens and the Dead Kenny G's

The setting: August 1989.  My parents had just walked out of my dorm room in Bruce Hall at the University of North Texas.  For the first time, I was alone and acutely aware of the changes I was about to go through, and to say the least I was in a state of silent panic.  My roommate, whom I owe a debt of gratitude for putting up with me as I learned to be a roommate myself, suggested we go see a band called Ten Hands.  Music can be a salve when life changes around you, and Ten Hands not only provided the soundtrack and many Thursday evening social events during that confusing time, they also ended up being an influence on my personal musicking (their bassist was the first person I had ever seen play a Chapman Stick).

Ten Hands struggled to “make it” in those pre-internet days, and, sadly, despite having incredible material, stellar musicianship, and great, great live shows, after probably too long they fizzled out.  There were many incarnations of the band, but my introduction came in the form of a tape called “Kung Fu….That’s What I Like.”  If you were around me at all during this period in my life, I probably stuffed that tape down your throat like it was the cure for what was ailing you.

Ten Hands released three CDs, but I have to say that if you were not there during the time that they were in their ascendancy, you missed it.  None of their recordings came close to capturing what the band did live, and filming a band in those days meant lugging a huge and unsexy camcorder around.  As a result there is very little documentation of them in their prime.  The album that should have been their breakout was “Be My Guru,” which you can still get, and its good, but due to a production problem, you will have to turn up your stereo ridiculously loud to even hear it.  I’m afraid you just had to be there.

Just because a band dies off, however, does not mean that its members do.  Some members of Ten Hands became sought-after studio musicians, while others quit the music scene altogether.  Last year, two ex-Ten Hands members had albums that made my personal top ten, and since you are probably not going to run across these albums anywhere else, it’s time for more medicine.

For all intents and purposes, Paul Slavens was Ten Hands.  He was the lead singer and primary songwriter, and his charismatic humor and musical ability was the glue that held the band’s performance together.  After the band dissolved, he eventually became a bit of a personality in the Dallas/Fort Worth area as a radio host.  His self-titled radio show plays every Sunday night at 8 and it’s a great source for getting exposed to new music (that’s where I got into Deefhoof).  Until recently, Slavens was also known for his longstanding Monday night gig at Dan’s Bar in which audience members would tip him to create a song based on a title that they would provide.  These improvised songs were always entertaining, often pretty good, and sometimes ingenious.  Just don't ask for any Ten Hands songs.  Trust me on this one.

Last year, he released his first solo album, “Alphabet Girls Vol. 1,” which is pretty ingenious all the way through.  Each title in this collection is based on a woman’s name that starts with one of the first 14 letters of the alphabet.  In lesser hands, this concept might be considered a constraint, but Slavens effortlessly imbues each piece with unique character.  In some cases, it is not hard to visualize the archetypical smoky piano bar that may have inspired songs like “Abigail” and “Frieda.”  In others, though, the bar is closing and the pianist who has exhausted his role as an entertainer reveals a more intimate and intellectual side in compositions such as “Clara” and the minimalistic “Janice” (this latter song has my favorite lyric delivery of almost any song in 2010).  This is a radio performance of the “L” entry, “Lucy:”

On the total other end of the stylistic spectrum, percussionist Mike Dillon was a very early member of Ten Hands.  Dillon went on to form his own group Billy Goat, and performed with several experimental groups such as The Black Frames, Critters Buggin, and, most visibly, Les Claypool’s Flying Frog Brigade.  His most recent project, however, is the Dead Kenny G’s.  

I know, right? Best.  Name.  Ever.

At least the most appropriate.  Undoubtedly, Kenny G stands for everything that these guys are against: musical ignorance, record company intervention, commercialism, disingenuous performances, managers, et cetera.  These guys are angry and cynical, and have the chops to really drive that point home.  Getting these three innovators onstage in a live setting is like watching nuclear fusion up close with no sunglasses.  Of particular note is saxophonist Skerik, whose electronically altered “saxophonics” never pushes the instrument past what is essentially a saxophone sound.

Additionally, I suspect that Dillon is a soundman’s nightmare.  The entire right part of the stage is dedicated to his percussion setup, which includes drumset, vibes, tabla, electrics, timbales, a whole mess of effects, and God knows what else he is messing with when he disappears.  It’s not just all for show, either - he plays all of it.  Often, he plays vibes and drumset simultaneously, holding combinations of sticks and mallets in both hands.  Still, he plays as if he just can’t get enough sound out of what he has in front of him.

Gotta say, it’s hard to capture that on a recording, but The Dead Kenny G’s album “Bewildered Herd” is right up there with Mr. Bungle and John Zorn as some of my favorite avant-garde punk-jazz-whatever out there.  Incidentally, the ghost of Fela haunts this band, too – they were covering “Zombie”” for awhile.

I apologize for making this one a little longer than usual this time, but there are multiple threads between these two CDs that make me resist breaking them up.  The main point is, despite having watched these two musicians grow in totally different directions (and grow they have), that first Ten Hands show in 1989 is still reverberating in my listening today. 


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this; concur with your opinion about the live Ten Hand performances! Wonderful & amazing, weren't they? Such energy & all talented musicians.
    Just have to make one small correction; Mike plays Tabla, not bongos (he often has to crouch down behind his kit to play them).
    Thanks again for this review. I look forward to following your blog!
    Sincerely, Mike's mom

  2. Thanks for catching that. Typos are the bane of my existence. Correction made.

  3. These are pretty good. Ten hands could be mistaken as an old funk band until they start rapping and going crazy around 3:33 on the video. Creative to say the least. I love the Dead Kenny G's. The name itself makes you interested and their style is unique by far.

  4. Thanks! Again, its really hard to represent Ten Hands properly. "Amoeba" was kind of one of their sillier songs, and I was hesitant to use it as an example. It is, however, of pretty decent quality and the only one I could find that features both Slavens and Dillon prominently.