Live review: Thundercat – Heaven, London

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HEAVEN, LONDON | MARCH 28, 2017

Before punk came along and pulled the pickle out of Britain’s mottled backside, old Britannia was really struggling for new ideas. Angel-faced choristers, sick of pulling the pud to Elgar’s refined pomp, had successfully swapped motion for motion, with bands like ELP, Genesis, and Yes knocking out intense, studied compositions to bedazzle their audiences into believing cosmic progress really could come in capes.

While Britain’s choirboys were raging firmly within the machine, things were looking a hell of a lot tastier Stateside. Born of the blues, musicians like Mingus, Monk, Miles, the Coltranes and Nina Simone were breaking through the stratospheres of spontaneous musical interaction, and using their voices to promote new ideologies, and greater civil liberties for black and female Americans.

With jazz choosing the right moment over the right notes, punk had to go one step further. Bin your scales; fuck it, bin your instruments, if it helps you get your kicks. Opening the door for the industrial, noise and no-wave movements that followed, punk ditched the choral tradition for whatever felt right, calling popular music’s basic architecture into question through feckless experimentation and wilful ineptitude. You gotta transgress to transgress, man.

In the middle of all this heat lies Thundercat (Stephen Bruner), the LA bassist who at 32 has already collaborated with the likes of Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus, and Kendrick Lamar, not to mention a nine-year stint in legendary LA thrashers Suicidal Tendencies. Bruner’s latest offering, Drunk – released February 24th on Brainfeeder – is a perfect combination of all of these influences, and his dizzying flurries of amphetamine-riddled smooth jazz have drawn all sorts to Heaven’s packed arches tonight.

On stage, Thundercat’s studio recordings are enhanced with a series of madcap geometric fills, which are miraculously kept in check by his calm-set falsetto. He’s joined on stage by keyboardist Dennis Hamm, and drummer Justin Brown, whose left hand snare – some two inches deeper than that to his right – adds a gutsy acoustic weight that sits perfectly with Bruner’s six-string hollow body bass. On ‘A Fan’s Mail’, Brown’s drums could easily pass for a slap bass, whilst Hamm’s underlying synth rumble opens up the floor for Bruner’s bass to elicit a sequence of slick oily wahs. Maybe it’s just the sound of bottles popping in the mixing desk, but it all sounds way punchier than Drunk lets on.

The extended space between songs is where the band’s telepathic interplay really steals the show. With cerebral harmonics sparking from six flurried hands, the instruments’ own identities blur and interchange, and you’re forced to question whether you really are witnessing just three musicians on stage. Conservative and clunky in comparison, the studied unison of bands like Yes and Jethro Tull restricted them from ever cutting this loose.

With brain-melting riffs noodling out at a dizzying rate, many of the audience watch on in bemused astonishment. Others adopt the kind of hypnotized sway you’d expect Aphex Twin to summon. Unsure of what to hang shapes on, the audience just finds new ways to get down. Still, there’s plenty here for everyone. Thundercat’s set finishes on the more radio-friendly trio of ‘Oh Sheit it’s X’, ‘Friend Zone’ and ‘The Turn Down,’ whose obsidian R&B whirlpool is the perfect antidote to two hours of intergalactic trans-instrumental deviation.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly – whose slick production bagged Bruner a Grammy – knocked rock and roll off its dusty perch, crowning hip-hop as popular music’s sharpest political tool. Now once again, Thundercat has flipped the script, using his genre-hopping explorations to screw with the basic physics of instrumentation. Yes, there are points where Hamm’s marauding synth sax lines lack a little on the high end, in a way that a live saxophone wouldn’t. But even the JBs would struggle to knock out two hours at this intensity. It’s a small price to pay to see a band dextrously take jazz beyond the capacities of embouchure. Transgression, man.


http://www.londoninstereo.com/thundercat-live-review/

Live Review: Matmos performs the music of Robert Ashley – The Barbican, London

19857matmose1-400x_center_centerMILTON COURT, THE BARBICAN, LONDON | OCTOBER 23, 2016

First broadcast by Channel 4 in 1985, Robert Ashley’s landmark television opera Perfect Lives stumbles through bank robberies, cocktail bars, hotel rooms and starlit plains to create a fragmentary exploration of the Midwestern American experience. Pondering mortality, banality, chintz and selfhood, the seven-act work proffers a peppered snapshot, humorously bound by Ashley’s self-delivered libretti. Through whistled purrs Ashley gives a wry and tangential performance, flitting equally between sassy satire and unassuming tenderness. Halving the original runtime, Matmos’ stage adaptation cuts four of the original seven acts to run at a digestible 90 minutes. Skilfully condensed, the work sacrifices plot for stylistic fidelity, artfully presenting Ashley at his wicked, ruminative best.

“To perform Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives you need to be respectful to a score that is precise about cadence and the tempo of delivery, but is also very open and non-traditional,” says Matmos’ Drew Daniel in the programme notes. Six years before his death in March 2014, Ashley bore witness to Matmos’ version of Act VII of Perfect Lives, ‘The Backyard’, during a performance in New York. Their interpretation was met with his approval, and the duo “ended with a feeling of legitimation; that he thought our interpretation was valid, even though we had broken with some of the basic rules.”

Today’s expanded performance adds two acts – I. ‘The Park’ and IV. ‘The Bar’ – with Matmos’ other half, M.C. Schmidt, starring as narrator. Daniel mans the electronics, whilst a string trio, flautist, two female backing vocalists and a pianist also feature at various other moments. Behind them all a screen shows visuals mixed in real time by Max Eilbacher, which incorporates snippets of John Sanborn’s original material for TV, as well as other vintage footage not used in the original production. The visuals play their part effectively, but it’s Schmidt’s incorrigibly theatrical performance that truly brings the opera to the stage. His finest hour comes during the sleazy boogie-woogie of ‘The Bar’. Regaling incessant Martini-fuelled small-talk with a half-measure of cabaret croon, he captures the rhinestone chintz of the original in a manner that is arguably more convincing than Ashley’s soft prairie lisp.

It’s a touch of flair you sense that Ashley would appreciate. Indeed, before deciding to recite the monologue himself, Ashley had initially bookmarked David Byrne to take on the opera’s sprawling libretti. But Schmidt’s isn’t the only voice that brings Perfect Lives to the stage in such successful fashion. Backing vocals from Caroline Marcantoni and Jennifer Kirby add a doubting deadpan to ‘The Park’’s Motel Lynch claustrophobia. Though largely confined to textual displays in the original broadcast, the vocalists’ blurted exclamations of “No doubt,” “A fact,” and “Of course” imply a sarcastic inner critique from the corners of the narrator’s psyche that heightens the air of emptiness and alienation. Daniel’s decision to replace the soft toms of the original with an Arthur Russell-tinged tabla drone adds a finger-tapping restlessness to the moment – further proof that this is not merely an adaptation, but a progression of Ashley’s original.

With clarity and imagination, Matmos have neatly repackaged Perfect Lives from a three hour TV broadcast into a 90 minute stage production. Respectfully devout yet courageously original, it’s a sublime reworking.


http://echoesanddust.com/2016/11/matmos-perform-the-music-of-robert-ashley-the-barbican-london/