Skeleton Crew was the legendary experimental, improvising duo of guitarist-violinist bassist Fred Frith and cellist-bassist Tom Cora (both sing and alternate on many other instruments, often at the same time) that was founded in the early 1980s after Frith left the power trio, Massacre (with bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Fred Maher). Frith and Cora (who was at the time a member of another legendary group, Curlew) first planned to form a quartet with Maher and guitarist Tim Schellenbaum, but due to a strange coincidence, the lungs of these possible bandmates collapsed at the same time.
The duo recorded a fantastic debut album «Learn to Talk» (Recommended, 1984) and decided to take this project on the road. Reeds player Dave Newhouse (of The Muffins fame) joined on the European tours of 1982 which proved to be very successful. Frith and Cora recorded their second last studio album as Skeleton Crew, «The Country of Blinds» (No Man’s Land, 1986, produced by ex-Henry Cow member Tim Hodgkinson), now joined by multi-instrumentalist (keyboards, electric organ, percussion and vocals) Zeena Parkins, who joined the duo performances in the United States and Canada from 1984 until 1986.
For the double album «Free Dirt (Live)», Frith compiled, edited, sonically enhanced and «otherwise cajoled into existence» 37 songs (some never released before) that span Skeleton Crew tours between 1982 and 1986, mostly from 35 plus years old cassette tapes. The album includes liner notes by Frith and a few rare photos and DIY posters. The sound quality varies (to say the least) and obviously fits the epitome of low-budget tours when Skeleton Crew did not know whether the gear would hold up, or which material they would be able to perform and make do with whatever the promoters were able to promote them. But, in retrospect all these details are trivial.
«Free Dirt (Live)» is a work of love for an era and for music-making that is almost impossible today by the Viennese label Klanggalerie. Obviously, it marks a formative time for both Frith and Cora (who passed away prematurely in 1998, when he was only 45 years old), as musicians, songwriters and free improvisers. It captures beautifully the amazing creative spirit and post-punk energy of Frith and Cora, with Newhouse and especially with Parkins, and its evolution throughout the short time of Skeleton Crew’s existence. Skeleton Crew operated as a wild sound lab, unpredictable and unapologetic, totally eccentric and «sorta kinda demented anti-industry and even anti-music» (Frith’s description), but radiating an uplifting power, and stressing the profound and immediate connection that these gifted musicians have established.
Frith and Cora culled ideas for their songs from folk songs, fragments of newspapers, correspondence with religious organizations that seemed primarily interested in relieving folks of their money, conversations and capers hatched with housemates and guests in Cora’s loft, all wrapped with cynical, left-wing perspectives, and all songs sounded very different every night. Both, as a duo, and with Newhouse and Parkins made so many fascinating sounds as if they were a much bigger outfit. But as soon as Frith and Cora exhausted the rollercoaster touring life and realized that Skeleton Crew has established a clear identity as a working band, they knew they had done everything they set to do and it was time to move on.
Take this wild ride with Skeleton Crew. Soon enough, you will realize how much you needed it.
Fred Frith (g, 6-string b, vio, slap-thwacker, Casio, cassette player, snare dr, bass dr, v), Tom Cora (c, b, samples, bass dr, woodblocks, hi-hat, cymbal, v, acc), David Newhouse (bcl, as, keys, miscellaneous perc), Zeena Parkins (el.harp, keys, acc, toms, v)