Over the weekend I saw two big-band concerts: the 10-piece free-improv Instant Composers Pool Orchestra at the Library of Congress, and the 8-piece post-rock collective Do Make Say Think at the Black Cat. These were both excellent shows, albeit very different, of course. I think the latter was good enough that it’s destined to make my top 10 list by the end of the year, easily.
But first things first — ICP Orchestra played this gig of their 40th anniversary tour to a respectably large audience at the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium. I had never seen any of these guys before, but was familiar with Misha Mengelberg, Ab Baars and of course the ubiquitous Han Bennink. They surprised me by playing very accessible music clearly grounded in the jazz idiom — probably a function of the audience and venue. No need to scare everyone away at a free show, I guess. In any case, Bennink was completely nuts. I had no idea he acted out so much, but the dude was ridiculous. At almost 65 years old, it seemed like he had about three times more energy than the rest of the band combined, and in fact he kind of overpowered them at times with his playing (and his vocalizing would have made Keith Jarrett blush). He sat behind a single snare drum and eked all kinds of noises from it, but didn’t satisfy himself there — on several occasions he leapt out of his seat and played pretty much anything on the stage that struck his fancy, including chairs, music stands, the floor, his foot, and so on and so forth. Entertaining, to say the least.
Oh right, the rest of the band. The other nine were just as fun to watch, if for a totally different reason: it was neat to see their interplay, the little nods and hand signals present at any improv show, the way they would split into little mini-ensembles that would seemingly play in opposition to each other before coming together just as spontaneously. Again, for the most part the improvising stayed in relatively structured and melodic territory (and the harmonies that this large ensemble stumbled upon were often beautiful), but it was a pretty rewarding show nonetheless.
One last note about this show: by total random chance I sat next to the saxophonist from DC Improvisers Collective, whom I’d never spoken to but recognized from the one show of theirs that I attended a month or so ago. We had a very brief interaction in which he mentioned that DCIC might be playing as backup for Joe Lally, ex-bassist for Fugazi, something that sounds very interesting indeed!
Moving on, Sunday’s show at the Black Cat got off to a less-than-promising start, as the openers, death-country group Elliott Brood, cancelled with no explanation. But when Do Make Say Think got on stage, all was forgiven. My brief recap at the ProgAndOther list:
I think DMST are the most interesting current post-rock band, and the only one who doesn’t seem to be rehashing the same formula over and over again (don’t get me wrong, I tend to like that formula, but you know…). I too was struck by the diversity of instrumentation, and their compositions really take advantage of that diversity.
The sound at the DC show was definitely at earplugs-needed levels (I put mine in after the first song), but their soundman was fabulous and even at the high volume levels, little things really came through in the mix - especially the violinist. It seemed like a lot of the band’s modus operandi was to develop a repetitive, trancey beat with subtle ornamentation from the guitars, and then a beautiful melody would surface out of the murk, on violin or horns or gently picked guitar. Really gorgeous stuff.
The diversity of instrumentation I reference comes from the fact that many members of the eight-piece band played two or three different instruments over the course of the show. The “standard” lineup seemed to be two guitars, bass, violin, trumpet, sax, and two drummers (although admittedly the horns were used more for color and ornamentation than for melody or lead lines), but when called for, there’d be a third guitar, or there’d be some keyboard or marimba in the mix, or the guitarists would pick up horns to make a muscular four-piece brass front line. Every one of these guys, but especially the three who rotated on guitars and bass, are impressively accomplished musicians, with some of the more intricate guitar picking a consistent highlight throughout the show. However, it was the violinist who held it all together for me. While the rest of the band was jamming along to trancelike rhythms or blissing out to ear-splitting climaxes (one audience member’s good-natured heckle: “do you guys have any songs with, like, big crescendoes?”), she was more often than not playing gorgeous melodies that, thanks to the skills of the soundman, were clearly audible even above the din.
Highlights of the show for me were all the quieter pieces like “A Tender History in Rust” — no post-rock group does quiet and pretty better than these guys — and the polar opposite, the extroverted and energetic “Horns of a Rabbit,” which absolutely slayed. But the whole set was fabulous, and it ended with a good sign: the guitarist said, “See you in the fall,” seeming to indicate that DMST will in fact be touring again soon. This is one band that I wouldn’t hesitate to see again, as their material is much more memorable live than on record (and I like their records).
Let me tell ya, Christina Aguilera (who yes, I am going to see tonight) has a lot to live up to. :-)