Skip to main content

Harvard Independent Passim Show Review

Monday, November 15, 2004

Concert Review: Jim's Big Ego, Club Passim 11/4/04

On the folk scene, free speech is alive and well.

By Liz Carlisle

It would be difficult to find a better poster child for the principle of open forum than Jim Infantino. Strongly-held beliefs about free expression have marked this singer-songwriter's career since he burst onto the Boston scene in the early '90s. With Jim's Big Ego, the band he founded in 1995, Infantino paired these ideas with cutting-edge technology to reach out with his music ever further and catalyze a response.

Nowhere was his success more evident than at Club Passim last Thursday night, when JBE fans packed the premises to hear the band's take on the recent presidential election. The crowd clapped, sang, and gestured along, yelling requests from the floor and joining in with gusto on the interactive pieces.

Particularly popular was "napkin poetry," a band staple and perhaps the best showcase of the three members' varied talents. Toward the end of the night, Infantino asked the audience to jot down their thoughts and pass them up to the stage for a "one-time-only performance." After allotting his charges two songs during which to complete their masterpieces, Infantino picked up the wad of papers and kicked off a masterful spoken-word montage, highlighting the improvisational creativity, cohesion, and sophistication of the band.

During the nearly twenty-minute piece, drummer Dan Cantor explored a range of funk beats, utilizing the full drum kit and taking advantage of the additional sonic space vacated by Infantino's guitar. Upright bassist Jesse Flack showed off his melodic sensibilities and eclectic background, referencing the bass line from Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" as Infantino delivered the largely anti-Bush assemblage of material. Riffing and refraining, the bandleader made the slips of paper cohere, with Flack and Cantor joining in on impromptu harmonies, sound effects, and distorted, spoken vocals reminiscent of hip-hop.

Cantor's distorted, often delayed harmonies, sung through a second microphone, were just the tip of the technological iceberg. Although Passim usually celebrates the perpetuation and dissemination of centuries-old, low-tech forms of music, the modern world was out in force on Thursday night. Flack's acoustic bass seemed a bow to the folk format, but Infantino's electric guitar and Cantor's drum set certainly raised the texture and volume of the performance above "folk" levels. The band also brought their own sound gear: three thin columns at the back of the stage (Bose cylindrical radiator loudspeakers) replaced the traditional cubic speakers and monitors. All three band members frequently used their microphones as instruments, rather than as mere amplifiers, creating effects that could not be replicated acoustically.

While contemporary musical technology has become a trademark of Jim's Big Ego, the band's use of contemporary means to disseminate their music is equally important to both their identity and their live show. Infantino designed the band's first website in 1995, long before a web presence was a music industry standard. He has since expanded the site several times, and it now functions as a virtual community and art medium in and of itself. Forums, downloads, and multimedia not only bring JBE to interested fans around the world, but encourage those listeners to write back and share their own views with both the band and each other. While forums and downloadable MP3s have become a relatively common feature of artist websites, few musicians have extended the interactive principle as far as Jim's Big Ego. Infantino recently posted source tracks of the song "Mix Tape" on the site and encouraged listeners to download them and create their own mixes using freeware.

This "remix contest" is only the most recent marketing innovation from a band that once asked Napster to put their music back onto its file-sharing site after JBE songs had been removed for copyright protection. The band has since created JBE Radio, a portion of the site that streams their entire discography, with an option to download on a pay-per-song basis. Additionally, the band's latest CD They're Everywhere was released with a Creative Commons license, which is more flexible than a traditional copyright. "Our license is share-alike/attribution/non-commercial," Infantino explained, both in our interview and at the show. "Share it, use it, credit us, and don't re-sell it."

What does all this music business techno-babble have to do with a good old live show? Plenty. Several audience members at Passim requested a new JBE song, "WTFMF/WTFAYT" (short for "What the *bleep*, Mother*bleep*er? What the *bleep* Are You Thinking?"). Written in response to the Republican National Convention and posted to the website just days ago (the acronym and an accompanying warning protect unsuspecting web surfers from profanity), the song has already been downloaded by several hundred people. The band has had little chance to perform it live and, of course, it's not on any of their CDs, but when they played "WTFMF/WTFAYT" Thursday night, fans were already singing along. Using the web in this way allowed Infantino to respond immediately to current events without waiting for a show or the long process of releasing a recording.

Similarly, "Asshole," track six on They're Everywhere, reached three-quarters of a million people in the last few weeks as the backing track to , a web-based "filmstrip" critical of President Bush. Clearly, most of Thursday's audience had been to the website: the lyrics themselves do not obviously reference the administration, but the crowd uniformly interpreted them as post-election venting.

While his recent internet fame has cast Infantino as the voice of Bush opposition, he hesitates to label himself a political songwriter or draw a sharp distinction between his early material and the more recent songs that make overtly partisan statements. "I am a staunch anti-fascist," Infantino said in a telephone interview. "What is a more livable society, freedom? What aspects of a fascist mindset are a part of everyday thinking - not giving a shit about anyone else but yourself and your group?" To Infantino, a song like 1993's "Stress" ("what I think I'd really love is to get out by myself

on a little tiny island in the middle of the ocean with just me and a book and a cellular phone and a personal computer in case something came up") is not too far removed from "WTFMF/WTFAYT" or "Asshole."

Open forum, however, merely guarantees opportunity. Competing in the marketplace of ideas requires ingenuity. As Infantino says of the current state of the music business, "the only thing that will limit you now is your creativity....The whole world is listening." Infantino and his bandmates clearly take their music seriously - JBE's use of profanity and provocative speech is no angry outburst. Both Infantino's lyrics and the band's performance are thoughtful and razor sharp, striking their targets directly and forcefully.

Easily lost in the discussion is the simple fact that these guys play great. While calling attention to the dramatic and expressive aspect of their performance, Jim's Big Ego quietly (well, not so quietly) makes very good music. All three band members are extremely accomplished on their instruments and their collective presentation evidences careful composition of the total sound. They do not have to bank on their politics or outrageousness for attention. This is why Infantino makes such a good First Amendment poster child: he not only exercises his right to free speech but does so with intelligence, responsibility, and a hell of a lot of talent.