NEW YORK, NY—Leaning against the railing of The Bowery Ballroom’s second floor between sets and looking down at the crowd assembled below, I felt rather omniscient. I could just make out some conversations below, or at the very least follow them, among hipsters, impressionable women and hopeless art-rock fans. It all looked a bit like a grammar school dance—no dancing, but cliquish chatter in small groups. The fallout from the Secret Chiefs 3 left a surprising amount of space, quite unlike when I entered the venue.
With a line running up the stairs and onto the street well after doors opened, the sold-out show was stifling. After some proper medication and a quick look at the coat check, I made it out of the bar area in time to buy a t-shirt and hit the second floor running. Covered my bases early, now to take in the show.
As it happened, I should have spread the evening out a bit. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum were going on at 10:45. And here I thought I was going to beat the Tunnel traffic for once. But no matter, the Secret Chiefs 3 were coming up, fronted by Trey Spruance, and that dude hasn’t let me down yet.
It had to happen sometime, I suppose. Their first song, with just Spruance and the rhythm section, was a quirky, off-time, additive rhythm-based piece, which was enjoyable enough to offset the ridiculous scarf Spruance was sporting. Then the next instrumental, another off-time piece with the rest of the seven-plus member band appearing, was also quirky, with an additive rhythm structure. After that, they started playing along to the Halloween theme, which, if you don’t remember, is also based in an additive rhythm. I was starting to recognize a pattern.
But everyone seemed to enjoy it. The Halloween theme (and a few other movie themes they worked with) went over wonderfully with the rapt crowd, who were alternately dancing (or trying to, with all the odd time changes going on), talking or just sort of blankly staring, with plenty of applause. I can understand—there was nothing wrong with the Middle Eastern, surfy, death metal-flirting sound that was coming from the stage—I was just expecting more. For seven or eight band members to be playing one really hard riff (and occasionally a counter melody or two) is great, but some arrangement would be nice. And only a few songs in their 90-minute set had much development beyond a main theme, which made the whole affair a little stale. It was disappointing, as Spruance and many of the other musicians, including some from Estradasphere, were obviously capable of so much more.
So I sat, waiting, drinking too much gin and making fun of the audience. I was surely the only person wearing metal-framed glasses, and I’ve never seen so many berets in my life. My beard was just unkempt enough to be considered individual, and my pants were casually fitted. I felt out of place the moment I walked in.
And there I was, leaning against the railing between sets after the Secret Chiefs 3 made their merciful exit. The teeming masses below were mostly oblivious to Sleepytime Gorilla Museum setting up their instruments (many, many instruments) on stage. Right on time, they appeared and granted me temporary salvation.
The group was outfitted in black-and-white chain-gang robes, with bassist Dan Rathbun’s homemade instruments adorning the stage for himself, front-and-center-man Nils Frykdahl and violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt, percussionist Michael Mellender and drummer Matthias Bossi upstage on house left and right, respectively. Nearly everything played was new, with only “1997 (Tonight We’re Gonna Party Like It’s)” appearing from their first record, Grand Opening And Closing, as the encore. “A Hymn To The Morning Star,” “Bring Back The Apocalypse” and “What Shall We Do Without Us” were standout selections from Of Natural History, but the show’s focus was their upcoming release, In Glorious Times.
As far as the new stuff, little regarding song titles was offered. Bossi did preface one new song by passing out sing-a-long sheets with a particular passage from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to deafening applause—I guess incomprehensible prose is a hipster magnet. It was like some bizarrely extroverted bookworm association: “Anybody here like James Joyce?!” Roaring applause. Nothing against Joyce, but usually it’s more like “How’s everybody doing tonight?!”
The new material was more in the vein of Of Natural History, and a fair amount of it seems to dovetail with Bossi and Kihlstedt’s Book Of Knots side project as well. No argument here. It was a grand affair, but not all saw it that way. Near the end of the set, I could hear two assholes behind me convincing each other how terrible this music was and how the band had no idea how to play their instruments.
In truth, the whole evening was almost a wash simply due to the sheer lunacy of the crowd I was in. Just as all hope seemed lost, however, I spied a middle-aged, balding man with glasses and grey hair, living inspiration for Bilbo Baggins, rocking his ass off only a few people back from the stage. He was headbanging righteously, almost getting trampled during the pit created for “1997,” but enjoying the show without pretense.