California Guitar Trio & Tony Levin’s Stick Men, live at the B.B. King Blues Club, New York, June 22, 2009

 

The California Guitar Trio may not actually be from California (they actually hail from Belgium, Japan, and the US), but there are indeed three of them and they each play a guitar. In a way, that tells you everything and nothing you need to know. As designated spokesman Paul Richards explained during their June 22nd show at The B.B. King Blues Club in New York City’s Times Square, they met as students in one of Robert Fripp’s early Guitar Craft courses. The promising pupils became members of the touring outfits The League of Crafty Guitarists and The Robert Fripp String Quintet, and formed the CGT to present their original repertoire interspersed with well-chosen progressive rock and classical covers. As a King Crimson fan, I’ve wound up seeing them live no less than three times, all without having specifically meant to. The 1992 R.F.S.Q. show in Philadelphia still stands in my mind as one of the best concerts I’ve attended, and I recall their opening sets for King Crimson in 1995 (also in Philly) and The Trey Gunn Band in New York in 1997 going over great with audiences (during most concerts I’ve been to, audiences can’t be pried away from the bar during the opening act). Richards also told the crowd they had been recording and touring the world for 18 years, long since deserving to cease being described as former students of Fripp. (but a little namedropping never hurts!)

California Guitar Trio liveCalifornia Guitar Trio

Monday night’s concert was also an unmissable chance to see Tony Levin‘s Stick Men, a new band formed with fellow stick player Michael Bernier and drummer Pat Mastelotto. The droll, genial Levin is one of the world’s greatest bassists, a fan-favorite (listen for the inevitable moment when crowds go wild as Peter Gabriel introduces him on any live album he’s released in the past 25 years), and not to mention one of the world’s longest-running bloggers. Mastelotto is a powerhouse, a true drum demon obviously enjoying himself enormously on his array of acoustic drums plus various electronics a drum geek would have to identify (comments below, please). He shattered a stick at one point (startling Bernier as a bit of shrapnel flew in his direction), but deftly swapped the casualty for a new one. I’m not familiar with Bernier’s music, but as if his talents weren’t obvious on Monday night, Levin gave him props as a player who influenced his own technique (meaning a lot coming from the legend that helped pioneer the Chapman Stick instrument in the first place). Also, Bernier’s got a little bit of a Hugh Grant thing going on.

California Guitar Trio liveCalifornia Guitar Trio & Tyler Trotter perform Tubular Bells

Generally speaking, the Trio gave a mellow, contemplative show, while the Stick Men came out blasting with some very dense, funky, mostly instrumental prog rock. They were really, really loud – very glad I brought my earplugs – and even chased a few people out of the venue. I’m shamefully behind on my CGT and Levin album-buying, so I wasn’t familiar with much of the later repertoire of either trio. I only own the first three CGT albums (including what I think is a rare copy of an eponymous cd I purchased at the R.F.S.Q. show, that isn’t even listed on their official site). Copies of their latest are on order from Amazon as I write, but I picked up a pristine-sounding live recording available for sale right after the show. Here’s the set list according to Hideyo Moriya’s Roadcam, along with some of my subjective comments:

  1. Punta Patri
  2. Unmei – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony rearranged by Moriya in a 1960s surf guitar style that totally, unexpectedly works.
  3. Cathedral Peak
  4. Tubular Bells / And I Know / Walk Don’t Run – A condensed version of the album-length progressive rock epic by Mike Oldfield (perhaps more famously known as the theme music from The Exorcist). Their sound guy Tyler Trotter joined the band on melodium.
  5. Portland Rain
  6. Andromeda
  7. TX
  8. Moonlight Sonata – Richards briefly described Fripp’s Guitar Craft lesson of “circulation” as a key technique that has stuck with them. Here they’ve distributed the notes among three guitars, passing single notes from one to another. I’m not an expert, but when it comes to classical music, Bach in particular seems well-suited for the guitar.
  9. Echoes – Longtime Pink Floyd fans (myself included, I must admit) recognized it from the first note, but when the major melody appeared, the audience went nuts, even more so than when some King Crimson covers appeared later in the evening! The CGT version includes a gorgeous ambient interlude, stretching the bounds of what an acoustic guitar can do when connected to all sorts of electronic devices.
  10. Eve – Levin joined them for this ballad, sounding a bit like his own “Waters of Eden”
  11. Melrose Avenue – A great, terse rocker. With Levin & Mastelotto.
  12. Blockhead – With all three Stick Men. One of my favorite CGT tunes, but they omitted any kind of solo (Fripp himself plays a stunner on the R.F.S.Q. album The Bridge Between). Amazingly, they started circulating power chords.

The Stick Men stayed on stage for the next set, which included the following (and a lot more):

  • Sasquatch
  • Red – The classic King Crimson barnstormer, which Levin modestly identified as “we didn’t write that one.”
  • Indiscipline – Sung by Bernier.
  • Soup (or Superconductor?)
  • Encore: Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II – An effortless-seeming version with the CGT. King Crimson fans will know what I’m talking about when I say here’s another possible interpretation of the “Double Trio” concept.

California Guitar Trio & Stick Men liveCalifornia Guitar Trio & Stick Men

Levin congratulated an audience member in the first row for consuming a slice of cheesecake during one of the rockier numbers. He also described their recent, greatly meandering European tour, which sounded very exciting to someone with a normal day job. No doubt a professional musician will quickly counter that that much traveling and border-crossing is grueling. But if there’s time for even a few days off along the way, it sounds to me like a great way to see the world. Or maybe it’s just hell.

Tony Levin's Stick Men liveTony Levin’s Stick Men

Thanks for reading, and I invite anyone to please comment below. And finally, if anyone cares enough to have read this far, one last thing: fellow New Yorkers might know what I’m talking about when I say that some days New York is more New Yorky than usual. Monday was one of those days, and the nutters were out in force. On my way to the venue, I was blessed (or cursed, maybe, I’m not sure) but a green-clad street preacher wielding a cross made of twisted wire. Minutes later, the guy sitting next to me in Starbucks got an earful from a totally different preacher. And then, in B.B. King’s, one audience member in the back near me was obviously stoned; not on something relatively harmless that merely makes you stupid, but rather on the sort of thing that makes you manic and insane (cocaine? speed?). He couldn’t stop loudly babbling for the entire concert, and was almost literally bouncing off the walls. I kept hoping the management would toss him out, but no luck.


Official band sites: www.cgtrio.com and www.tonylevin.com

Buy the California Guitar Trio’s Echoes and Tony Levin’s Stick Man from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Blue Man Group: The Complex Rock Tour Live

Blue Man Group - The Complex Rock Tour Live

 

This Dork Reporter may have to burn his Rock Snob card, for I just watched and enjoyed the Blue Man Group concert film The Complex Rock Tour Live. I’d long assumed that the Blue Man Group’s seemingly permanent residency on Lafayette Street in downtown Manhattan was some kind of tourist trap like Mars 2112 or Jekyll and Hyde, but now I’m wishing I had looked closer.

For any others that may also have prematurely dismissed them, the Blue Man Group is equal parts performance art collective, percussion ensemble, and, well, blue. The Complex Rock Tour DVD captures the group live in 2002, with a show that is at once both an actual rock concert and an ironic commentary upon one.

I had to fight the suspicion throughout that a blue-clad trio of catburglars had slipped into my apartment and raided my cd collection. As I watched, I started to compile in my head a list of artists that must have been influences:

  • Emergency Broadcast Network. Now defunct, EBN was a trailblazing multimedia performance group that fused McLuhan-esque media theory with techno, all in the style of a television news broadcast from hell. Their caustic and aggressive social commentary is a far cry from The Blue Man Group’s squeaky clean naiveté, but it’s hard not to watch footage of their live performances without seeing an ancestor of the Complex Rock Tour’s ironic infographics.
  • Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave concert film (1986). All the ingredients are here, albeit in artier form: film, performance art, mime, masks, dance, etc.
  • Peter Gabriel and Robert LePage’s Secret World Live and Growing Up Live tours were as much theater as rock concerts, utilizing simple yet hugely symbolic shapes and props: a tree, an egg, the moon, etc.
  • Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense concert film (1983), for all the same reasons as Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel above.
  • King Crimson. Some of the Blue Man music bears more than a passing resemblance to the polyrhythmic tuned percussion King Crimson employed in the early 1980s with tracks like “Waiting Man” and “Neil and Jack and Me.” Not only that, one of the members of the Blue Man band can be spotted played the Chapman Stick, popularized by Tony Levin.
  • Rock Snobs might be surprised to hear traces of even more modern music in the Blue Man Group repertoire. I caught snippets of the instrumental so-called “post-rock” of UNKLE, Battles, and Explosions in the Sky.
  • And finally, the one influence the Blue Men actually namecheck with a (brief) cover version in their show is Devo, but I don’t own any of their music! Maybe I should take this as a recommendation.

As humorous and toe-tapping as the Complex Rock show is, the Manhattan-based Blue Man Group end the proceedings with “Exhibit 13”, a haunting piece incorporating footage of actual World Trade Center debris that showered over Brooklyn only a few months prior. The piece is available online at Exhibit13.com

Blue Man Group - The Complex Rock Tour LiveAn excellent way to recycle your used PVC

Official site: www.blueman.com

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.