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.

The Decemberists Live at Radio City Music Hall, June 10, 2009

 

Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 (including Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Bill Rieflin of Ministry, R.E.M., and The Humans) opened with an enjoyable 30-minute set. I was unfamiliar with Hitchcock, but by total coincidence had just days before seen his appearance in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. His quirky non sequiturs between songs (“I had a root canal this morning, which is why I’m wearing a hat” – which he wasn’t) contrasted with his focused, tight songs. The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy briefly joined in on tambourine and backing vocals.

Robyn Hitchcock and The Venus 3 live at Radio City Music HallColin Meloy joins Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 as they warm up the crowd

I’m a latecomer to The Decemberists, only catching on with their third album The Crane Wife (2006), which features a guest appearance by Laura Veirs, one of my favorite singer/songwriters, on the wonderful track “Yankee Bayonet.” My interest was further piqued by a review (that I now can’t track down) that compared them to early Genesis, of which I am also a longtime fan. It’s a bold comparison, for few would classify The Decemberists’ music as progressive rock. But it is fitting insofar as their compositions are often epic narratives, encompassing styles ranging from pastoral folk to hard rock, all performed with high musicianship that eschews flashy individual soloing. Further bolstering their prog rock cred, the first half of The Decemberists’ set was the entirety of their 2009 concept album, The Hazards of Love.

In retrospect, a concept album was inevitable for a such a band that had already shown a penchant for lengthy story-based songs like “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” (on Picaresque, 2005) and “The Crane Wife Parts 1-3.” Compared to Genesis’ grand but slightly inconsistent epics “Supper’s Ready” and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, The Hazards of Love is actually one of the most cohesive concept albums I’ve heard. It rivals The Who’s Quadrophenia for clarity of vision and cohesiveness of its recurring musical themes.

The Decemberists live at Radio City Music HallMy camera is momentarily overwhelmed by the proceedings

An instrumental organ intro (sorry to keep bringing them up, but possibly an idea borrowed from Genesis’ “Watcher of the Skies”) launches the epic fairy tale. The role of a girl that falls in love with a forest creature is sung on record and live by the airy, sweet voice of Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark. My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, a pint-sized, multi-instrumentalist powerhouse, blowed everybody’s hair back as the evil forest queen. How does a girl that small have such powerful pipes?

Although a few tracks can stand on their own (especially “The Rake’s Song”), the entire suite deserves to be heard in one piece. It was a very bold move to release a 58-minute song suite at a time when the long-player album is dying, and music is consumed track-by-track and randomly shuffled by iPod algorithms. Personally, I had found the album a little slow to absorb, but now that I’ve witnessed the whole thing live… wow. It’s brilliant, and made to be experienced live, in one piece.

The Decemberists live at Radio City Music HallBecky Stark & Shara Worden join The Decemberists to cover Heart’s “Crazy On You”

The second set mostly featured songs I didn’t know, so it’s time for me to visit Amazon MP3 to buy up their back catalogue. Peter Buck came back out to join them for a cover of “Begin the Begin” from my favorite R.E.M. album Lifes Rich Pageant (I was unable to shake Michael Stipe’s hook “The insurgency began and you missed it” from my head the entire walk home from the show). Stark and Worden rejoined the band for a full-blooded cover of all things, Heart’s “Crazy On You.” Their rendition was totally faithful, and yet somehow managed to sound both like a Decemberist original as well as something Fleetwood Mac might have done. They ended on a high note for me, with one of my personal favorite Decemberist songs, “Sons & Daughters.”


Official band site: www.decemberists.com

Buy The Decemeberists’ The Hazards of Love and Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3’s Goodnight Oslo from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.