St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn, 29 February & 1 March 2008
Time to get verbose, friends....
What is the perfect sound? The tone that sets your hair on end? The instruments that cause your insides to curl up in a ball and purr like a kitten? For me, I'd look no further than the band that John Zorn put together and dubbed "The Dreamers." The perfect name for the perfect band. Stick Marc Ribot in the center of your living room like a Christmas tree and start decking the halls -- for your rhythm section take the dirty, grooving bass foundation from Trevor Dunn, the happy-go-lucky, quite-possibly-the-greatest drumming from Joey Baron, and the freestyling so-crazy-he's-playing-it-straight percussion of Cyro Baptista. As a foil to the guitar mastery of Mr. Ribot, add in a dollop of electric piano and organ from Jamie Saft. That seems about right. But then just for good measure a sprinkle of the beautiful sounds of the vibraphone courtesy of Zorn-universe stallwart Kenny Wolleson. And what kind of music should they play? Does it matter?
Well, of course it does. Thankfully, for the perfect band, John Zorn has written the perfect music. Picking up where "The Gift" (previous record holder for most beautifully fulfilling music I've ever heard) left off, he's taken that blend of exotica, world-bending otherworldiness and branched out into a serious statement about what all great music should sound like.
We were lucky enough to have 2nd row seats for Friday night's premier showing of The Dreamers which was basically the band running through the album due to come out later this month. Ostensibly, the music centers around Marc Ribot's uncanny abilities. Throughout the night he twisted styles and genres so effortlessly it became clear that no matter how heralded he ever could become, he would forever remain enigmatically underrated as a guitar player. I've sung his praises time and time again and am a true believer to the nth degree and still I'm shocked to the point of speechlessness every time I see him. Last weekend saw Marc operating in the zone like I've rarely seen him. At the slightest nod or gesture from conductor Zorn he was pouncing at the groove like a cat batting around a ball of yarn. Except when he got his paws on it the yarn flew out in kaleidoscopic multihued shapes. In this band, as in the Gift, he's relying heavily on the reverb/whammy bar combination which suits his playing just fine. Unlike the Gift, though, there is much more depth, offshoots of dark and mysterious, funkified rocking out that is so fitting to Ribot's strengths there's little doubt that Zorn composed all these tunes with his longtime anchor in mind. Surely John had his Dr. Evil grin on his face as he imagined the destruction Marc would inflict on audiences when playing the music he was writing.
While I could sing the praises of all the players in this group in equally ridiculous paragraphs, and while Marc Ribot was the undeniable centerpiece of the band, there was one guy who seemed even more indispensable to what was going on over the course of the set. That would be the one guy who was laying back the furthest in the groove and yet who owned it like none of the others -- Trevor Dunn on mostly-electric bass. You can't spell "badass" without "bass" and that just about sums it up. With a ensemble cast possessing this much world-be-mine talent, it takes someone to be the rock to everyone else's meanderings. Dunn was that guy like no one I've ever seen. There was zero flash and little-to-no spits of exposition, just pure adherence to the back line like I've never seen. Yes, Trevor Dunn was an adherent to the washing, sweeping grooves, believing in them like Branch Davidian believed in Koresh. So many of the songs were built up on a concrete slab of a steady bass line and their success was dependent on Dunn sticking to them no matter what kind of craziness was swirling around him. It was very sweet to watch.
The show started with some of that surfy Gift-ish action on "Mow Mow" and hung in deep with that lying-on-the-beach vibe. But lest we get too comfortable, Zorn was quick to throw in some mix-it-ups throughout the set. The 3rd or 4th tune was an almost "straight" jazz tune that had Saft switching from his electronic rigs to a grand piano and Dunn switching to an upright. With Baron holding sway, the rest of the band kind of hung out and watched as these guys whizzed through a pretty amazing jazz tune. Saft was brilliant on the ivories, playing a nearly constant stretch of up-tempo notes, barely keeping up with Joey's brushwork. Later in the set Zorn introduced a song dedicated to Lou Reed (in attendance) and the band dropped into a rock/pop Velvet Underground sound-alike. A tune with a catchy, zippy guitar part that I've had trouble getting out of my head for the past week. There were two distinct rock riffs in there, each clean and distinct and the song worked by flopping smoothly between these two and then changing tempos: faster and faster revealing some appealing goods hiding in all that simplicity. For both these tunes there mood was almost throwaway -- John Zorn is so prolific it's like he writes jazz and rock tunes on the toilet paper in the bathroom while brushing his teeth, and yet the results are pieces that any indie rock band or established piano trio would kill to have in their repertoire. The set was chock full of amazing songs and the most amazing thing is that he can just throw in compositions like these seemingly on a whim. Another piece, "The Toy" was an acrobatic number that featured Zorn actually picking up his saxophone and playing on. This was one of those can-you-figure-out-the-time types where it was almost impossible to figure out the signature without smoke forming between your ears. Admittedly, the band had a bit of trouble hitting all the right spots in this crazy death-defying stunt of a number, but despite the complications it still sounded pretty cool. You never know what you're getting when you go to a John Zorn performance, but even here at it's least accessible, the music was entirely listenable and enjoyable as could be.
Still, the most powerful stretches were when the entire 6 guys locked into a relatively simple groove and verged between rock, funk, jazz and cerebral gymnastics and just let themselves go free. Usually this was centered on some wildly pyrotechnic guitar work from Ribot, but really everyone was an equal contributor. One tune in particular we called Zorn's "Maggot Brain" -- a dark funk that laid back on Dunn's bass playing in 3/4 time and just release Ribot's inner demons with solo after solo of intense guitar playing. After a climax you could feel the rush of tinglies shiver through the audience who had just enough time to catch their breath before they rewound the clocks and started all over again. Pure ecstatic brilliance.
Yeah, so the show was pretty good. You might say excellent. And I didn't even get into every move Joey Baron made which tilted the rhythms of the cosmos onto some tilting tangent or the percusscomedic stylings of Baptista and his bag-o-tricks. Nor am I able to get into the metaphysical implications of my three favorite sounds in music -- Marc Ribot's guitar, the vibraphone and the electric piano -- mixing together in pure deliciousness like flour, eggs and sugar and butter. That'll have to wait until the next time, I guess. The whole six of 'em were obviously in high spirits and enjoying the hay out of playing the music together. They came back out for an encore of two Gift songs which was a wonderful way to cap off the night. Several years ago when the Gift was the new opus I went to check it out on a "that looks like it could be pretty good" whim at Tonic. I was so bowled over that night, I don't think my ears have listened to music the same since and I bought the album on the way out and promptly listened to it on repeat until my receptors went numb. Listening to the encore Friday night it was clear that for all of The Gift's beauty and perfection, it no stands as just an introduction for what The Dreamers is now.
The next night I returned to St. Ann's for a show with the same exact musicians plus a couple others (Erik Friedlander on cello and Ikue Mori on MacTop) for a night of "Essential Cinema." Before the show, though, Zorn announced that Friday was so much fun for the guys, they'd be doing a 2nd set reprising the entire "The Dreamers" show from Friday night. WHOA! AYFKM? Friday was one of those nights where when you were leaving you might ask "If I could pay money to see the same exact show again tomorrow night, would I do it?" and probably would answer yes... well, we had the whole thing asked, answered and thrown in for free.
That set the dynamic for the Cinema set in a different light. As it turned out the show would happen with a screen lowered in front of the band and 5 short films shown while the band played the soundtrack in the background. The films were of varying type and quality but mostly whacked out avant garde type stuff which were more experimental than plot or character driven. I won't try to explain them in too much detail, but the resulting music was all over the place, to say the least. The first number was very similar to the beautiful exotica of the previous night and was like planets circling the gravitational pull of the Ribot guitar. The movie was like an old silent film with a sort of Indiana Jones feel which had been cut and spliced so that the scenes seemed to tell a different story. It was offbeat and watchable and with the music altogether delicious. From there, things got a bit weird -- one film was just a series of quick cutting images that was closer to some sort of subliminal message than anything watchable. The accompanying music was monkeys-flinging-shit crazy sax-driven noise. The combination of visuals and music was nearly enough to drive you crazy and yet, for me at least, the tiptoeing along the thin line of insanity was a bit thrilling. Another film started with a kind of animated Wizard of Oz theme that quickly degenerated into a series of kaleidoscope images of human bodies and faces that got all psychedelic when mashed together with optical tricks. Visually, this was the most fascinating but it went on for a bit longer than I would have liked. The music alongside this film eventually settled on a hypnotic drums-and-congas rhythm that was both relaxing and eventually irritating.
Personally, while the music didn't approach the quality of The Dreamers, I found the experimental aspect to it incredibly enlightening and refreshing. Would I have felt the same way if I sat there for an hour in the 2nd row again craning my neck, probably becoming brainwashed by some weird subliminal urge to buy more Tzadik records were it not knowing all the while that another set of the greatest thing since sliced bread was on tap? Who knows. Thankfully, it's irrelevant. After a short break, the band returned and, if it were possible, may have topped their performance from the previous night. While Friday was spectacular, there was a definite feeling like the material would only get better as it was worked over a bit in the live setting. Even one night removed from the premier, it already had that lived-in feel, like it had been worn, washed and dried and then put back on. Still new and fresh but somehow softer and more comfortable. Yes, there was some stuff that came off better on Friday and other stuff, like the whacked out "The Toy" that was certainly topped on Saturday, but it's really just splitting hairs, infinity vs. infinity plus one.
As the band took their final bow at the end of another intoxicating set of music Saturday night I was quite sure I was looking at the best grouping of talent that money could buy. I think Electric Masada is the best damn band out there and as I watched these guys I realized that The Dreamers are essentially the same band with a couple of changes that, for the most part, make it even better: i.e. lose the unnecessary laptronics of Ikue Mori and instead of 2 drummers, move one of them to play the vibraphone, quite possibly the coolest sounding instrument in western music. And leave it to John Zorn to know exactly what kind of music these guys should be playing. It's called "The Dreamers" -- buy the album, see 'em if you can. Trust me.
06 March 2008
St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn, 29 February & 1 March 2008