To describe it dryly, Bowerbird, along with Sebastian Petsu, is presenting a concert series atop a double-decker bus that roams throughout the city. Sunday evening’s concert was the unusual pairing of Madam Data, a multifaceted electronic noise artist/clarinetist, and Ursula Rucker, a critically acclaimed spoken-word artist and poet.
By the concert’s finale, we had visited City Hall, Independence Hall, Chinatown, Eastern State Penitentiary, Spruce Street Harbor Park, Sugarhouse Casino, the transformed warehouse where I used to tutor for the SATs, many a 7-Eleven, and old industry transformed into yuppie playgrounds: the architecture of domesticity and convenience amidst a Disneyworld of Americana. This is the closest a concert has ever come to being a dream. Through all the wealth and privation, I was poured into headspaces. I was on this alien plane and, as an audience member put it, “there was no jumping off,” and that was good.
It started out simply enough: Petsu giving us a little tour of Old City, pointing out the buildings, offering fun facts. He was confident, his voice silky and a little silly. It caused unease; I didn’t come here for some tourist bullshit. Already my guard was up. But he broke through that; peppering in a crack about the ever-more-common sight of condos, and another how Betsy Ross has been exhumed and buried next to a hot-dog cart. As the tone grew sardonic and irreverent, I began to feel genuinely welcomed inside the concert space. This is rare for any venue.
Petsu asked at the end of his segment if anyone had any questions at all about Philadelphia. I inquired about the statue of a man about to take flight on the south side of City Hall. Petsu replied that it is Octavius Catto, a 19th-century civil-rights leader who worked to desegregate Philly’s horse-drawn trolleys as well as an outstanding baseball player and manager. Racist rioters shot and killed him on Election Day in 1871.
A strange heartbeat
It was on that note that Madam Data took over.
They began by saying that their piece was about longing. They summoned an electrocardiogram—a high-pitched drone piercing through me, interrupted by a strange heartbeat, a cassette Walkman, touched intermittently, palpating. It left us at the mercy of a full sensory experience of sight, sound, and exhaust fumes, the sunset-soaked Ben Franklin Parkway defamiliarized. Its parade of flags and monumental structures were now an exaltation of many monopolies on violence.
I was genuinely uncomfortable, drawn further inward by slow transformations of high-pitched to phase-y sounds to whispers without recognizable language. It was minimalist, in that small shifts felt seismic. By the end, the drone had become bright and chordal and the relief occurred as a warm wave. Madam Data was daring and their experiment richly rewarding.
A conversation with the soul
The unspoken cruelty of this city is its disparity between the wealthy and the not, but through Rucker’s words, that feeling of being on the outside looking in, of wanting to reclaim a building brick by brick, was not only shared but fulfilling—it felt possible to overcome the rapacious cruelty of our society. Her poetry is a conversation with the soul. This has as much to do with her technique as with her inventive wordplay. On the bus, she used call and response, got the audience clapping, and loudly exclaimed how amazing it was to even be in this bizarre space, forming moments of sonic unity with Madam Data’s clarinet. That kind of radical openness and sincerity are aspirational.
Her poetry, her spoken melodies, are uplifting; they are a call to action, a call to revolution literally vibrating the Ben Franklin Bridge. She is an energetic, rowdy, and highly sensitive performer who speaks with such control that her words wove elegantly through the sounds of traffic and Madam Data’s jazzy accompaniment.
Toward the end of our journey, as the bus came upon a banner depicting a juicy steak hanging from the bunker that is Sugarhouse Casino, passersby with stomachs full and wallets lighter could hear Rucker’s insistence that “If you don’t want to join the revolution, Waffle House is still taking applications.”
At one point, Rucker said that this experience could change the world. I wholeheartedly agree.
What, When, Where
Bowerbird’s Double Decker Music Series presented Madam Data and Ursula Rucker on July 14, 2019. The next concerts will feature Jaimie Branch and Sebastian Petsu on July 28, 2019, and Rosali and Seraiah Nicole on August 25, 2019. Shows depart from 6th and Market Streets, Philadelphia. bowerbird.org.