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: and

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.