It wasn’t too long ago that the concept of “live drum ‘n’ bass improv” was regarded with the same quizzical skepticism as a Bob Weir Lovelight: typically that kinda thing just didn’t happen, and when it did, usually resulted in some off-kilter performances. But unlike Bobby Weir, drum ‘n’ bass has come a long way in the past few years. Slowly growing out from its dark, UK Underground roots, DnB has become one of the more popular and diverse styles of electronic music, and has even insinuated its hyperactive rhythms and stripped-down instrumentation into some of today’s more cutting-edge live acts. This past Friday at SF’s venerable Justice League, DnB was carried into a new realm by some truly innovative, impassioned musicians who are carving out their own niche within this evolving genre.
The J-League stage was set for an exotic atmosphere, overgrown by a towering bamboo plant in the far corner and illuminated by candles and glowing jaguar masks on either side. The band took the stage, and instantly a rhythmic cyclone swirled across the room: Zach Velmer was at the drums, slicing into a high-octane groove, countered by the low throb of David Murphy’s resounding bass. Murphy’s bass tone felt darker, more sinister than usual; Zach’s drum set was about half the size of his normal STS9 setup—and for good reason. The kid manhandled the ride cymbal and snare drum all night long, almost to the total exclusion of the other parts of his kit. Similar to the ebb-and-flow dynamic of STS9, Zach’s bionic beats balanced Murphy’s thick, cavernous chords and provided a dense rhythmic foundation for DJ James Christopher’s ambient breaks and spacious effects. Chris’ laid-back fills on the decks twisted into the nooks and crannies exposed by the rhythm section like bright fuzzy moss creeping into the cracks of a massive boulder. The three shared a common musical approach, layering spiraling patterns of sound one atop another until an intricate blend gradually came into focus. Chris spread lush sonic effects over Zach and Murphy’s churning rhythms, widening their musical horizon with color and texture, and he just as easily dropped out of the mix to leave only the stark, vast space of the drums and bass. Technically speaking, the music these three made was absolutely jaw dropping in its speed and timing. Above all this psuedo-android precision, pure human emotion rose up from the stage, warm and affirming. And on top of all that were the vocals.
Part of this trio of vocalists was imported all the way from Atlanta by Zach and DJ Christopher. Ragga MC XQR stepped up to toast the mic in a raspy basso profundo, exponentially upping the positive vibe with bouncy, libidinous dancehall chants. XQR was partnered with Lost, who flowed with a more straight-ahead, hard hitting hip-hop style. The two complemented each other like old pros, punctuating the band’s music with tight, conscious rhymes and boundless, infectious charisma. Then once Audio Angel hit the stage, the cyclone finally blew the roof off the room and the first set left for the stars.
She was a major presence, the Audio Angel: a rowdy big-lunged diva belting out soaring vocals and engaging the crowd with a huge smile and saucy dance moves. Turns out the SF DnB fixture (aka Rasheeda) was a last-minute replacement for Zach’s original choice of fem vox, but her soulful energy and syrupy vocals were perfectly suited to the band’s overall sound. With all three vocalists on stage at the same time, the music reached new heights of spirit and substance that instruments alone can rarely achieve. Like all confident musicians, the interplay between these three was great to watch. Each pivoted off the other, taking the fore or backing off, XQR the rhythmic MC, Lost the lead, and Audio Angel the gorgeous melody that wrapped it all up in soul.
The band played together with this full lineup for most of the first set, continually energizing the vibe with perfectly executed musical/lyrical breakdowns and climaxes. For the final song of the set, STS9 guitarist Hunter Brown took the stage, and the groove slowed into a sort of drum ‘n’ ballad. This sedated, more deliberate number allowed Hunter’s ethereal licks to shine, and showed that this RootScience rocket ship came with a slow gear after all.
After some setbreak spoken word, the second set departed further from the clockwork-like DnB and ventured into realms of strange, experimental time signatures. The mood perpetually shifted as the band took on new forms on stage. XQR flowed solo in a skanky space-dub groove; Lost kept the heads nodding with some freestyle flow over boom-bap drums. Audio Angel crooned a sultry, dreamlike version of Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo,” a blast from the past that sounded eerily appropriate sung on top of Zach’s slick, light speed salvos. During an instrumental number with the vocalists offstage, we again were blessed by the glistening guitar of Hunter Brown, this time fully funked out with fast, syncopated chops. DJ James Christopher left for a bit too, and STS9 percussionist Jeffrey Lerner stepped up to the congas and HandSonic sequencer to add more mystifying ingredients to this heady mix. With four of the five Niners on stage, the music took off to realms of deep jazz and sonic meditation, before hurtling down into the underground to delve back into furious DnB hysterics. Even as the night grew late, Zach’s energy never waned; he was still raging the cymbal and snare with no mercy.
“You think this is as good as it gets? It gets better! You think this is as high as it gets? It gets higher!” After morphing through several different lineups and time signatures, XQR and Lost belted out the chorus to a raucous hip-hop anthem, and towards the end of the tune, XQR dropped the gruff dancehall style and showed serious skills as a freeflowing MC. By this time the crowd had thinned out and the lucky ones still left were dancing in wide, sweeping arcs across the floor, bumping and grinding and swimming in front of the stage. Only hours after we were introduced to a totally fresh, untested theory of sound, we were hypnotized and energized by it. We believed in it. It seemed almost impossible, but somehow this first-time band’s dark, deep, low-end excursions became a springboard to launch us all up into blissful musical heights. This RootScience experiment proved that music’s evolutionary course will make some thrilling, unpredictable turns as it heads into an uncharted future. Here’s hoping we get a chance to take this trip again.
JamBase | SF
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Words from The Kayceman
It is a safe assumption that anything the members of Sound Tribe Sector 9 are involved with will be a genuine, moving experience. It's in their blood, a part of their membranes, they don't do anything half-ass. Their art is their life, is their way of being, is them. There are no separations between their stage persona and their real life attitudes, they wear it on their sleeves.
There are so many wonderful reasons to go to a 9 event, first and foremost the music is always amazing, that almost goes without saying, but it is this aura of a 'real' experience that is of almost as much importance.
Of the various side projects the crew from Sector 9, are involved with right now, the Santa Cruz Hemp Allstars, L.I.F.E. and RootScience, this was the one I was most excited about.
It's not that I don't like the Allstars, I happened to love them. And it certainly isn't a reflection on L.I.F.E., which was amazing in it's own right. My excitement stems from the unknown. I had no idea what to expect Friday night at the Justice League. I knew the cast although I wasn't familiar with them all; Zach Velmer and David Murphy, from Sector 9, DJ James Christopher from War On Drums, MC's Lost and XQR (pronounced executioner), of the Atlanta hip-hop group, Knightbred and a woman that went by the name Audio Angel. I also knew the premise; "classic drum and bass tracks interpreted live in an improvisational atmosphere. As a group the performers will recreate and simultaneously reinvent the sounds at the roots of modern jungle." O.K. What that exactly meant, I really didn't know. My only notion was live drum n' bass. Live drum n' bass? It's almost an oxymoron. I mean I do realize that what Zach and Murphy do with the Sound Tribe is at times coming from the same playing field as jungle and d n' b, but could they actually pull off a whole evening of live, improv drum and bass with very little, if any practice?
Come on! Was there ever really a question, is the soon to be master of modern drumming really going to dive into a situation that he can't fire his way out of. And of course, Zach and the entire project pulled it off gloriously.
Allow me to back track and set up the scene for you. The somewhat hard Justice League was given a warm glow and welcoming vibe by the candles and living room couch on stage. There was drum'n'bass, with some dance hall being spun by a DJ, and before too long a group of four people sat on the couch, with two others off to the side with hand drums. The evening began with some positive spoken word backed by the drums. The poetic beginning was a very appropriate way to slide into this evening of inspirational expression.
The excitement jumped about ten octaves when Zach walked out to his kit, and Murphy picked up the bass. The couch was now gone, and in it's place we found MC's taking the stage. No time was wasted as Zach dove in with some patented insanely fast rhythms. I was still unsure as to how they were going to make this work, but they just did. It wasn't a trying affair, it didn't seem hard for them, they simply laid it down. Zach blasting his skins, Murphy resonating deep bass lines, and DJ James Christopher providing perfect space sounds, juggling beats, and meshing the entire unit. And the lyrical leaders were a pleasant surprise. Even more than that, they were dope!
The aspect of the evening that I was most skeptical about was the MC's. And lets just say they put my worries to rest, and quickly. All three of them were REAL vocalists. Not rip off artists, or annoying talkers, they led the party (well outside of Zach of course). The words were packed with love, peace, unity, and expressions of positivity. No gangster crap, no swears up and down and all over everything, they knew their deal, and ran with it.
The raspy dance hall style of XQR was complemented wonderfully by the smoother, quicker hip-hop essence of MC Lost. And no one could upstage Audio Angel, who as the name suggests, had an absolutely beautiful voice. They traded lines, mixing and matching, flowing in and out of the hard and heavy beats. I was awe struck. For the first twenty minutes or so all I could do was stare at the stage, making sure I knew where all the sounds were coming from, and more or less trying to convince myself that they were really doing this.
Eventually I let loose a bit and started to get some dancing on, only to be even more impressed, and excited when I saw Jeffree Lerner (Sector 9) take up behind his drum machine. As the party rages on, who other than Hunter Brown (Sector 9), jumps on stage and adds some nice guitar licks to blend with the beats. So all that was missing from the whole 9 Tribe crew was David Phipps who I saw in the corner, laying low, maintaining his somewhat mysterious aura. Let's just say the Justice League was ecstatic. Most of the people there were led by the fact that some of the Sound Tribe would be performing, and now there was four out of the five on stage, with a sick DJ, and some of the best MC's I've had the pleasure of seeing. It was totally different than any Sector 9 experience one will ever have, yet intimately connected in a familiar manner.
I couldn't really tell you the highlights, because I don't really know what they played. There were a few familiar tunes, and I do recall the best remix of Sade's "Sweetest Taboo" I've ever heard, and I believe most if not all the tracks were covers, but the selections were coming from an area of music that I was not all that familiar with. But rest assured, I'm doing my homework. Instead of saying that I can't comment on the highlights, perhaps I should tell you that the entire two sets were the highlight. I mean the whole evening was amazing. Zach in true Zach form, Murphy's neck bouncing on the bass lines, the energy of a hip-hop/reggae dance party, and sound scapes by the DJ. All I can say is WOW!
The evening was a success. No doubt about it. RootScience did something on stage that I have never seen before. I've witnessed some really wonderful, conscious MC's do their thing with a great DJ laying down the beats. And I've seen some sick dance hall, I've even seen Zach and Murphy perform at that level, but I have never seen a live drum and bass duo, let alone one that incorporates the elements of a hip-hop show. It was a sight to behold.
After the gig, I ran into Zach, and upon thanking him for yet another inspirational musical movement, he (in true Zach form) turned the tables and thanked me, and everyone else for that matter. He was glowing, explaining that this was his dream, his "baby." Of course it was Zach's dream, a dream of love, a dream of peace, a dream of enlightenment, a dream of sick ass out of this world drum and bass. We should all be so lucky to dream like Zach. We should all be so lucky to receive the dream, to open the mind, let the sounds heal, and the voices guide.
JamBase | San Francisco
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