Space was the place to be when the Sun Ra Arkestra played a sold out show at Johnny Brenda's in Fishtown on Saturday night on the occasion of alto sax player and bandleader Marshall Allen's 89th birthday.
He's the one in the psychedelic Shriner's wizard outfit in red on the left. For this gig, the Philadelphia band founded by Ra, who died (or 'ascended' in Ra speak) in 1993, and directed by Allen since 1995, contained over 20 musicians. You can see only 15 or so on stage, but that's only because that's all the tiny bandstand at JB's could hold. There were other drummers, keyboard players, percussionists and interpretive dancers at the foot of the stage during the show, which was presented by Ars Nova Workshop, and I'm pretty sure the woman who was keeping perfect time on cowbell at the bar right about the time I had a full beer spilled on me was with the band, too.
One of the things that's so tremendous about the Arkestra is the way they combine old school and new: The ensemble opened with "Smile," the Charlie Chaplin composition (that was Michael Jackson's favorite song, if you're keeping score at home), and all night long they split the difference between being a highly-disciplined, wondrously rhythmic, semi-traditoinal big band (albeit one dressed like black Mummers on acid) and a bold free jazz collective whose noise explorations are often outrageous but never pointlessly indulgent. As our man Steve Klinge put it, the Arkestra's music is 'cacophonous and composed."
With Allen attacking his instruments (in addition to sax, he also made a wonderful high pitched improvisational racket with his Electronic Valve Instrument) with the fervor of an avant gardist half his age, the band played for well over two hours, with never a dull moment in sight or sound.