Sat 16 Feb – Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Estradasphere
Yeah, it's taken me forever to get around to writing this review.
When I went to this concert, I'd just been to another show at the Great American Music Hall a couple of days before (Thu 14 Feb – Buckethead, Kid Beyond
), which was both enjoyable and frustrating. I'm not going to write a full review of it, but to sum up: both performances were good, but the mostly metalhead crowd didn't know how to react to Kid Beyond's electronic-inspired beatboxing, and I expected more variety from Buckethead
than he provided.
This show made up for the flaws of the previous one.
The opening act was OVO
(for whatever reason, they weren't in Last.FM's listing). While I was already a big fan of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, and had heard some tracks by Estradasphere, I was totally unfamiliar with this group. I was very pleasantly surprised.
This masked Italian duo consists of Bruno Dorella on drums, and Stefania Pedretti on bass and vocals. Bruno stood behind just a floor tom and a single cymbal—not even a full kit. Stefania is deceptively petite. Yet despite their minimal instrumentation, together they produced an impressive wall of sound. Bruno beat out thudering, driving rhythms, at one point carrying his kit out into the crowd to play while surrounded by the audience. Stefania's bass playing was slow and heavy, and she displayed a stunningly versatile voice, ranging from surprisingly deep funeral doom growls and death grunts to black metal screaming to breathy cries and wild ululations. The lyrics, if there were any, were unintelligible, but the raw emotion was clear as a bell.
For one song, Stefania put her bass down and played her hair with a bow. Or rather, she played the bow with her hair: the sound came from a contact mic attached to the bow. The results were a series of bizarre scraping noises and screeches. It's the sort of experimental stunt that could easily fall flat, but here it fit perfectly.
Next up was Estradasphere
. I had heard and enjoyed some work by this band, but not a lot. Maybe four tracks, tops. They're a fairly large band, consisting of a violinist (doubling on trumpet), guitarist, drummer, bassist (upright and bass guitar), and keyboardist/accordionist. Their appearance gave some impression of their eclecticism and lack of seriousness: the guitarist wore a bright red suit, the violinist/trumpeter was dressed in jeans, button-up shirt, and cowboy hat like a rodeo rider, and the accordionist was dressed only in a towel wrapped around his waist. The lack of seriousness didn't extend to their playing, however, which was very tight. Their style is wide-ranging—Western swing to lounge jazz to metal to polka—and prone to changing directions at the drop of a hat. Imagine a less abrasive, more jokey Naked City
: they are perhaps even more directly influenced by Looney Tunes composer Carl Stalling
than that band. I wish I was more familiar with their work, so I could say what they played.
Finally, we had the main event: Sleepytime Gorilla Museum
. I had heard that they were a great live act, and prone to unusual stage antics, but until this point I had only heard (and loved) their work on albums, so I was looking forward to seeing them. They did not disappoint.
The stage was cluttered with instruments both familiar and original. A tall newspaper-covered box sat on a stand in the middle of the stage, flanked on the right by a drum kit and on the left by various percussive objects on stands, including pieces of torn and mangled sheet metal and something that looked like a small flight of stairs of varying sizes. In front, on the right, were stringed instruments built from lumber, piano wire, and pickups, on legs (and, in the case of the largest one, on a hinge that allowed it to be tilted up and out of the way). On the left was a another smaller home-built stringed instrument on a stand.
The band took the stage dressed in urban primitive clothing, all crudely torn natural fabrics and earth tones, with messy pseudo-tribal makeup, including red stripes down their foreheads. Dan Rathbun
, who manned the bass and the contraptions on the right, was sporting an impressive short triple mohawk, with black makeup lines bisecting each of the two bald stripes in his hair. Nils Frykdahl
took center stage with his guitar, and Carla Kihlstedt
took the left with her violin and the smaller widget. In back, Matthias Bossi
sat at the traditional traps, while the junk percussion was handled by (I believe) Moe! Staiano
After an opening tune, Nils introduced the theme of the show. They were here, they told us, to show us something that we "probably have never seen, unless you are very old. I can't tell you what it is just yet, but I can give you a hint: you can poke it...with a stick". While he said this, a pair of bare feet poked out from the top of the mysterious box. They then broke into a new song—most of the night's material was for a new album not yet released, and if the show was any indication, it will be at least as good as Of Natural History
. They didn't say what the song's title was, but the chorus was "we must know more!". After the song, they began poking through the box (which was just a frame wrapped in paper) as the crowd cheered—Nils: "These things once roamed the plains of this country. Your grandparents may have told you about them." crowd member: "Burn it!" Nils: "Yes, it is flammable, you can burn it."—revealing the contents: a man hanging upside down from a harness, his face wrapped in newspaper.
They declared him to be the last known surviving example of a species once thought to be extinct: human beings. They then launched into another new song, which I'm guessing is titled "The Last Human Being In The World" ("the last / human being in the world / is alive!"). As they played, the "last human" writhed, eventually tearing away his facial covering and escaping from his harness. At the climax of the song, he snatched away Nils's guitar and started frantically and erratically chugging away at a single chord. The band came to a dead stop when this happened, and Nils gingerly tried to grab his guitar back, shooting occasional helpless looks at the audience. He eventually managed to regain control of his instrument.
Another song was, I believe, titled "The Dance You Can't Dance", which Nils introduced with an anecdote about a possibly drugged-out woman at a show in Texas shouting "he's dancing the dance you can't dance!". As the band played, the last human danced by twitching awkwardly yet rhythmically while wearing a top hat and swinging a cane. At one point, he even crawled/walked out onto the heads of audience members.
A further skit was as presented as an episode of the TV show "We Must Know More", with the audience as a "studio audience". The show was about the controversy over the recently discovered last human, and featured a sleazy announcer, two opposing camps of scientists (one named "The Institute of Ruthless Precision"), the ditzy woman who discovered it while camping, and an interruption by a group of animal rights protesters who wanted it put back in the forest where it belongs. One group of scientists maintained that it was really the last human being, and that its head should be dissected ("which should not harm it") to be sure; the other (which included a "Professor Frykdahl", probably Nils's father) asserted that it was not a human being because human beings are, in fact, mythical—due to its preference for hanging upside down, it must be some sort of bat. The woman told the story of how she found it (behind a log), and said that at first she thought it was a salamander. As the host lamely flirted with her, the first group of scientists presented us with various surprising "facts" about human beings: "It's a little-known fact that human beings' brains were actually external
to their bodies, and were called 'computers'. They had a symbiotic relationship with mice: the mice would scurry to and fro, carrying messages between the human's body and the computer."
After a couple more songs, including Old Grey Heron
sung by Rathbun, the band briefly left the stage, but returned for an encore of two more familiar songs: 1997 (tonight we're gonna party like it's...)
and Sleepytime (Spirit Is a Bone)
I should note that the long piano-wire-and-pickups instrument, which I believe is the "Thing" as listed on their albums, was played by stopping the strings with a slide and hitting them with mallets, as a sort of tone-bending electric dulcimer. Additional effects were provided by plucking bent pieces of stiff wire sticking out of the wooden block, to create a buzzing noise with a hard attack and long sustain and lots of inharmonic overtones.
Whoever said that avant-garde music was dry and humorless went to the wrong shows. This was a blast, and all of the acts went the extra mile to engage the audience.
After that long, high-energy show, I was pretty wiped. I thought I was going to have to walk down to the transbay terminal and wait an hour to catch a bus back home, but daryldarko
, who I'd just met, offered to give me a lift, even though it was well out of his way. I don't think I thanked him enough.
Merch haul: an Estradasphere T-shirt, OvO's album Miastenia
and their three-way split EP with Psychofagist
and Inferno sci-fi grind'n'roll A Bullet Sounds The Same (In Every Language)
, Estradasphere's Buck Fever
, Moe! Staiano
's An Inescapable Siren Within Earshot Distance Therein And Other Whereabouts
, Lisa Bielawa
's A Handful of World
(with Carla Kihlstedt), and a collaboration between Carla and a Japanese musician whose name I can't recall and which I can't find at the moment.