Open Pt. 3
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pt. II
Firebird Suite Pt. 1-4
Jammin’ Java, the quaint coffee house/bar doubling up as music venue located in the charming neighbourhood of Vienna, in the Washington DC metro area, seems to have become a firm favourite with Tony Levin and his Stick Men bandmates, Pat Mastelotto and Markus Reuter – even though the Boston-born bass/Chapman stick wizard must be used to much larger, flashier venues. Judging by his happy demeanour, Levin seems to have a soft spot for the place (as does his friend and former King Crimson partner, Adrian Belew) – even when, as in this case, the gig involves some considerable juggling. Indeed, the April 27 date (following the triumphant, sold-out appearance by Two of a Perfect Trio in September 2011) had been rather oddly sandwiched between a date in Connecticut and one in upstate New York – forcing the band to cut their show rather shorter than usual to allow them to hit the road in good time.
The screen at the back of the stage proudly displayed the banner of the DC Society of Art Rock (DC-SOAR), a group that for the past few years has been quite active in promoting progressive music in the Washington/Baltimore area . Unfortunately, attendance was not what such a relatively high-profile outfit would usually command, and the long, dimly lit space before the stage was nowhere as crowded as it might have been in different circumstances. Indeed, having a concert start at 7.30 on a Friday night in a high-traffic area is quite likely to keep away quite a few prospective attendees. Though all of the 25 VIP tickets had been sold, they were not really worth the extra $15, as the only advantage they gave was to be able to get inside early and listen to the soundcheck while partaking of food or drink in the Lobby Bar. The VIP seating area was also quite cramped, while the tables and seats that had been arranged in the general admission area were much more comfortable, and allowed a great view of the stage. Luckily, as I observed in my review of the Two of a Perfect Trio gig, the ear-shattering volume that had characterized my first two visits to the venue in 2009 has been toned down, so that people will not find themselves stunned by the sheer impact of an almost physical wall of sound.
For those who are still pining about the demise of King Crimson (at least in terms of live performances), bands like Stick Men are a godsend, as they retain all the energy and complexity of the original, coupled with a much more open, friendly attitude towards their audience. Although I have never seen Mr Fripp in action, I am well aware of his inflexible stance about taking pictures during concerts – which was replicated by Eddie Jobson’s Ultimate Zero Project at NEARfest 2010 (much to the dismay of the audience). Seeing Levin, Mastelotto and Reuter smile and wave at the fans, take pictures of the audience at the end of the concert, take some time to chat with the fans, and generally enjoy themselves on stage – all the while retaining a thoroughly professional attitude – was incredibly refreshing, and a boon to everyone who had bought a ticket in spite of the inconvenient scheduling of the gig.
In spite of the time constraints, Stick Men produced a richly satisfying setlist, expanded from their September performance, and including enough King Crimson material to please the more nostalgic component of the crowd. However, their own compositions definitely stand up to comparisons with the “mother band”, following in its footsteps while avoiding the clone-like feel that occasionally mars the output of celebrated acts’ side projects. While highly proficient in the technical department, Stick Men’s music is powerful, muscular and strikingly modern – the endless range of expressive possibilities offered by two polyphonic instruments such as the Chapman stick and Reuter’s custom-made touch guitar (a glossy red number deceptively looking like a traditional guitar) supported by Mastelotto’s rhythmic powerhouse.
In spite of their extensive touring schedule, Stich Men are busy working on their new album, which is slated for a fall release. In the meantime, they have been writing other material: Levin jokingly stated that they had written an album last Friday, and the audience was treated to one of those new pieces, titled “Open Pt. 3”. All the original compositions were very strong, ranging from the evenly paced, atmospheric “Slowglide” (featuring Levin on vocals, and an entrancing, effects-laden middle section) to the aptly titled “Relentless”, a hard-hitting piece reminiscent of King Crimson’s late ‘90s incarnation.
As could be expected, however, it was the King Crimson stuff that drew the most applause. Classics like “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pt II” were rendered in a heavier, though perhaps less subtle fashion, proving once again the essential role played by King Crimson in the development of progressive metal. Reuter filled Fripp’s role with aplomb, and Levin’s Chapman stick was all over the place, aided and abetted by Mastelotto’s unflagging beat. A particularly intense version of “Indiscipline”, with a slo-mo, drawn-out introduction and Levin doing a decent Belew impersonation, was one of the undisputed highlights of the show, together with the stunning “Firebird Suite (Pt. 1-4)”. Mastelotto’s imperious drumming paralleled Stravinsky’s trademark percussive firepower, while Levin and Reuter seamlessly worked their way through the intricate orchestral arrangements, debunking the myth that banks of keyboards are indispensable to any reinterpretation of great classical music.
In a few months, those who missed out on Friday’s gig will be able to see Stick Men perform again with Adrian Belew’s Power Trio (under the handle of Crimson ProjecKct), when they open for Dream Theater on their Washington DC date (July 13, Warner Theatre). Levin’s former partnership with John Petrucci, Mike Portnoy and Jordan Rudess in Liquid Tension Experiment should be enough to explain this apparently odd pairing. It is to be hoped that this slot on a much longer and higher-profile tour will create more interest in Stick Men’s own original material, which deserves all the exposure it can get.