The Critical Mass

Margaret Explosion, Paul and Leo Dodd: Filling in the lines

Margaret Explosion has returned from its summer sabbatical for its usual Wednesday-evening residency at The Little Café. The band likes to call what it does “background music,” something for patrons to talk over as they discuss the French film they just watched. But Margaret Explosion’s self-description is as self-deprecating as its music. It is a sublime cocktail of the spaces between notes. Peggi Fournier on sax, Ken Frank on upright bass and Paul Dodd on drums. It is an unusual organic machine, one that never rehearses, one that never even bothers with an introduction before playing. The musicians are milling about onstage one moment, and the next moment there is music. And Margaret Explosion records every moment of every show. It posts what it likes on the band’s web site.

Something is missing now. Bob Martin, whose feathery guitar notes are so much the echo of jazz master Bill Frisell. Martin, who has played with Fournier and Dodd in many forms over the past few decades, has moved to Chicago. In his place last week was Phil Marshall. Dodd figures they haven’t played together in five years, when Marshall filled in for Martin. In Margaret Explosion fashion, they have not rehearsed for this moment.

We know Marshall. From The Colorblind James Experience, Lalaland, and as a key component to who knows how many local acts, most recently The Fox Sisters and Annie Wells. And the Phil Marshall Band, with a gig Friday at Abilene Bar and Lounge. I have written this before, in a scene loaded with astounding guitarists, it’s hard to say Marshall is the best. But I think he is the best at writing for the guitar. The empirical evidence is in his 2016 album, Scatterbed. Inspired mostly by his work as a music therapist playing for the elderly – dealing with cancer, dementia, or their bodies simply worn out from life – most of the songs document not only these people having reached the end, but how the lives of bands draw to a close as well. Perhaps Marshall didn’t intend Scatterbed to draw that parallel, but it is there.

Martin was known for the astounding array of effects devices that he put into play, electronics that could sound like ghosts, or a car filled with clowns sinking to the bottom of the ocean. And here Marshall was last Wednesday, now officially of Margaret Explosion. Sitting on the floor Buddha-like, in front of his own shrine of effects pedals and knobs, his guitar whispering accompaniment to Fournier, Dodd and Frank. A perfect fit, yet we shouldn’t expect him to be Martin 2.0, and he won’t be. Two, maybe three times, the rocker showed through the jazz cracks.

Behind this, Dodd. In a scene loaded with amazing drummers, he is the most-interesting to watch. So subtle, with marionette-like movements, half of his playing isn’t playing at all. He’s hitting notes that are in his head only.

It is how he draws as well. Dodd has a show now at Rochester Contemporary Art Center, 137 East Ave., running through Nov. 12. Much of the exhibit, called “Witness,” is his intriguing portraits, heads floating against a white background, interpretations of mug shots pulled from the pages of the local newspaper. The eyes are intense, or vacant, as Dodd searches for what’s behind them. And often, in his search for emphasis, lines are missing. The side of a head, even the pupils of the eyes in one larger work. Lines that are in his head only.

In an artist’s talk Saturday afternoon with RoCo’s Bleu Cease, an audience of about 30 people was curious as to whether any of Dodd’s subjects, all of them convicted of various levels of wrongdoing, had ever confronted him about being the unauthorized subject of his work. No, Dodd said, that has never happened.

But this did: When Arthur Shawcross was arrested in 1989 for the murders of a dozen women, Dodd recognized this odd, bulky man as a fellow bicyclist who he’d see on Alexander Street, the soon-to-be-notorious serial killer pedaling his way to the Dunkin’ Donuts at Alexander and Monroe Avenue. This brush with evil was too much for Dodd’s muse to resist, and he drew Shawcross’ portrait. Monroe County District Attorney Howard Relin later bought it and gave it to Chuck Siragusa, who had successfully prosecuted Shawcross.

The Shawcross portrait is not at this show. But that evil would have been eclipsed anyway by a far more powerful and beautiful presence that is at “Witness.” Paul’s father, Leo.

Leo Dodd, who died about two years ago, was a watercolorist. But he bears witness to a different side of Rochester than that of his son. Leo’s watercolors are of public works, often in mid-construction. Many bridges. The Xerox building downtown. The erection of the Tom Otterness outdoor sculptures at the Memorial Art Gallery. Always accompanied by people. Sometimes construction workers, or citizens in a park.

A part of Paul’s artists talk touched on his brother, Mark, who was an 18-year-old college kid when he and some friends were busted at Bowling Green State University on the most minor of marijuana charges. Smoking a joint, an activity that we know at least 11 presidents of the United States have participated in.

After Paul’s talk I asked about Mark. There was, of course, a story beneath the story. Small-town corruption. Leo had put a mortgage on his house to pay Mark’s legal fees, and was told by the local justice officials that some of the bail money would be returned and, if he “got rid of that Jew lawyer” and re-directed the money to them, they would go easy on Mark.

Mark did serve some time, and the most-startling part of “Witness” is from that period. In a glass-enclosed case, among other artifacts, is a letter Leo wrote to his son while he was in the jail. It is brief, at times poetic, done with thoughtful lettering. There is a reflection of the politics that he hoped to pass on to his son.

We implore…

Never – Never be conservative…

closed in your outlook, fixed

in manners and thought

But most of the letter is hope and support. No parental chastising for making the wrong decisions. At one point, Leo drew a little timeline of Mark’s life so far: Long dashes equaling decades. There is a little figure of Mark, not even two decades in, with many more lines ahead, lines that he would have to fill in. It is a remarkable document, and moved me very deeply.

Paul said his brother’s experience with the criminal justice system had a big impact on the family. And Mark. He wanted to help those caught in the merciless machinery, as he once was. Today, many more decades into his father’s timeline, Mark is a parole officer in New York City.

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