Don’t believe what you’ve been hearing about the Bay Area’s power crisis — last weekend proved there’s enough electricity pumping through San Francisco to charge the city for days. The buzz started early in the week and batteries are still juiced from three nights of innovative artistic expression, brought to the masses by a couple bands in the process of dissolving the artificial boundaries that have plagued modern music since the advent of the Record Company.
A lot of hoopla has been made recently about “the unlikely intersection of electronic dance music and neo-hippie jam bands,” to quote MTV.com’s Michael Endelman. To the popular media, there must exist some separation between two types of music lovers who both get off on gathering with friends and dancing to high-energy, hypnotic music until dawn. Somehow the obvious connection is overlooked. Musically and mentally, the two scenes and styles have always stood side by side, on the vanguard of counterculture and the fringe of the underground. It’s taken the fresh frame of reference of a new millennium for them to finally come together in a natural groundbreaking blend.
Some musicians use technology—sequencers, samplers, drum machines, filters, studio effects—to create sounds beyond the range of traditional live instruments. This is the kind of stuff that’s typically put down on wax and played by DJs at clubs. But here’s the odyssey of 2001: Sound Tribe Sector 9 and The New Deal take that electronic sound and blow it up in front of an audience, expertly improvising with alien sounds and impossible rhythms to build passionate, monumental climaxes that rock the mind, body and soul. These bands have taken progressive dance music to a brand new place.
That’s not to say they sound at all similar. Thursday night, standing in line at the Justice League, I really didn’t know what to expect from The New Deal, but the show I saw was the kind to reaffirm your foolish, compulsive devotion to live music. To start the whole thing off, The New Deal took the stage while the DJ was still rocking upbeat, funky house tracks. The band blended in as if he were simply putting on the next record. That moment was the perfect illustration of the skill and energy the band sustained through the rest of the night. Once they launched into that first bodyrocking groove, they couldn’t slow down because the momentum they built was almost enough to blow them off the stage.
The New Deal had house coming out of every pore, more so than some house DJs I know. They knew what the club-savvy SF heads had come to hear. Bassist Dan Kurtz’s warm, sultry thump rolled beneath drummer Darren Shearer’s crisp, head bobbing beats, while keyboardist Jamie Shields showered the room with intricate, explosive solos and vivid atmospherics. Shields often had his hands on three different keyboards at once, layering swirling effects over funky jazz melodies and staccato riffs; Shearer busted the human breakbeatbox for a real 808 effect on a couple tunes. Seamless, split-second transitions from thundering house bounce to funky syncopated breakbeat and back again kept the crowd moving nonstop—there was never a break for any kind of downtempo meditation or space-trance hypnotics. The full-on ecstatic energy the band radiated kept the party rocking until setbreak.
Somehow the place emptied out between sets, and those who stuck around were treated to a venue half as crowded and a band twice as amped. Instantly they were on fire all over again, and aside from smiling like demons and dancing the Crazy Getdown people just didn’t know what to do with themselves. Wherever this music was coming from, it was taking us there.
Watching the hand signals thrown between the musicians gave some clue as to how they remained so perfectly synched, but the very nature of the trio allows for more intense communication and direct interaction than is possible with larger groups. As high-energy as they were, The New Deal also remained incredibly focused and intent — they’re a crew on a mission. And with no lyrical content, they might be the most serious block-rocking party band you’ll ever see.
After nearly an hour of second-set hysterics, the band finally left the stage and the crowd had a short moment’s rest. Looking to the people around me, I could read by the beaming eyes and impressed expressions that the music had taken hold of my friends and nobody wanted it to let them go. Thankfully before long the band was back on stage and tearing into an encore that blasted the audience back into the deepest reaches of bliss. When the tune finally came winding down, my mind was still roaming the spaceways, thrilled to have been a part of a collective turn-on that I’m sure none of the audience will ever forget.
The residual positivity lasted well into Friday, and by the time the sun went down the voltmeter was off the charts in anticipation of the first of Sound Tribe Sector 9’s two performances at The Fillmore. Less than a year ago these guys played to a room of 300 people at San Francisco’s now-defunct Cocodrie. Now here they were packing them in for a two night run at the most legendary venue in the country. With a couple high-profile DJs opening both shows (Imperial Dub’s Hesohi on Friday and Om Record’s AfroMystik on Saturday), there were definitely a lot of first-timers on hand to check out the hype surrounding one of the jam scene’s most enigmatic bands. Sector 9 seemed aware that this was a momentous show and were there to make a definitive statement.
But ahh... their sound was more of a mantra than a sentence. Hearing Sector 9 reverberating within The Fillmore’s crystalline acoustics, I knew they had finally come home. The place was meant to hold them, and the band was destined to fill this room. The sound, the lights, the visuals—everything was of the highest standard. The technical perfection gave the band a springboard to effortlessly depart into their unique brand of innergalactic jazzed-up drum’n’bass. Friday night the band was all empathy. They responded directly to the energy of the audience, playing with us rather than to us, playing what we wanted to hear. Like a feedback loop, the more the crowd became involved with the band, the deeper the band dove into headspinning rhythmic joyrides.
Drummer Zach Velmer, raised up on a low platform at the back of the stage, alternated on kit drums and electronic drum pads, laying out lightning-fast beats that only his innovative technique can produce. The uninitiated were looking for the sequencer all night, because the kid plays faster than what most of us consider humanly possible. Zach’s interaction with Jeffree Lerner’s subtle, colorful percussion and Dave Murphy’s steady, subliminal bass laid the rhythmic foundation for Hunter Brown’s elegant guitar and Dave Phipps’s omnidirectional keys. While jamming for upwards of thirty minutes without breaking stride, there was never a single shred, wail, or wank. The band was locked in to an intricate groove requiring each player to be as involved as the next at all times. In a sense the whole band soloed the entire show, and the end result was a complex musical tapestry woven of countless individual strands. Pull out one strand and the entire picture fades away...
Sector 9 plays music that is at once cerebral and emotional. They’re not the party band that The New Deal is; they’re more of a music lover’s band, a jazz lover’s band. Their music is intensely introspective but still exudes a warmth and soul that only passionate, talented players can achieve. At least that was the conclusion I came to after Friday’s show.
Saturday was a whole different scenario. Rather than volleying back and forth with the crowd, Sector 9 played right at us on that second night—they let us know, they told us so. This was the statement they were looking to make, and it resounded in their new material and their reworkings of older tunes. They locked into the groove way earlier than the previous show and didn’t let it go all night. Everything they played was in transition, the music moved constantly, with no predetermined sections set aside for “improvised solos.” What I heard was one continuous warm, comforting, soothing solo unfolding directly from the heart of the band to the heart of the audience. Because there are no lyrics, STS9's music is intensely personal. You can't relate to the band through their words so you become more deeply involved with the music they play. With serious listening each note becomes a secret whispered into your ear becoming a story only you can understand—you and the 1,100 friends frolicking with you. Both inwards and outwards at the same time, the music is like a vehicle, carrying you wherever you need to be...
By the last song the crowd was worked into a frenzy, and then was pushed over the edge by a twenty-foot long Chinese-parade-style serpent with glowing eyes and fluorescent scales that appeared from backstage to wind its way through the crowd. When the band finally concluded their last song, the roar of the crowd was like a rocket blast. As the band walked offstage, I overheard the first of many, many superlatives that continued long into the night: "Best Sector 9 I've ever seen;" "Best show of all time;" "Most incredible night of my life..." Everyone was in agreement that these shows marked some kind of climax in their lives. And then the band resumed the stage and began their encore, the same tune they opened with on the previous night. They played like they were leading a prayer to the Music Gods, and the audience was their willful, respectful congregation. As a unit we all gave our highest respect to this intangible art form we hold dear.
In one of the most powerful closings I've ever witnessed, the band faded down the music and allowed the sampled voice of an enlightened elder to speak for them. With wisdom and patience the voice reminded us of the positive potential of music, and concluded, "I hope we all find something special to share on this short journey we call life..." As the voice trailed off the band took a bow and thanked the elated crowd, both performers and audience overwhelmed with emotion.
The New Deal and Sound Tribe Sector 9 are at the forefront of musical innovation. Their innate talent allows them to experiment with forms that were previously confined only to the imagination of studio producers. Both bands share a common mindset: they take making music seriously, and they don't underestimate the intellect of their audience. As fans, we're always looking for something new and experimental. As musicians, these bands dwell in the new like it’s a regular four/four walking blues, and the music they make is the next logical progression in an evolution we can only dream about. There's nothing at all contrived in their genre-bending sound; electronic is organic and vice versa. And by involving artists trained in other media in their performances—painters, poets, photographers, DJs—The New Deal and Sound Tribe Sector 9 prove that the contrived barriers between artforms are easily broken down by honest intentions and open minds. True music fans know better than to keep things they love separated for long.
JamBase San Francisco Correspondent
Go See Live Music!
Thanks to Liz O'Keefe for the Sector 9 photos and to Jay Archibald for the New Deal photo.
The New Deal
Justice League | San Francisco
Thursday, February 1, 2001
Set I: momentarily unavailable
1st movement: free jam > Ravine > My Head, My Head > Back to the Middle [Rhapsody in Blue tease] > My Head, My Head
2nd movement: free jam > [Then & Now tease] > Single #4 > untitled song > Single #4
E: free jam > Single #5
Sound Tribe Sector 9
The Fillmore | San Francisco
Friday, February 2, 2001
Baraka, You’re It, Tap In, Grow, Frequency D&B > New D&B
Circus, Surreality, EB, New Down Tempo, What Is Love, Shine, ...And Some Are Angels, Evasive Maneuvers>Kamuy
Saturday, February 3, 2001
New Song, New Song, Blue Mood, Hubble, Water Song, ISB
New Song, Wiki, Together Dreaming, Orbital, New Song, Moon Socket