“Now this band exists,” Nick Zammuto announced after the first song his self-titled quartet performed Friday night at MASS MoCA. A resident of nearby Readsboro, Vt., Zammuto has long used the contemporary art museum as a staging area for his musical and multimedia projects. A 2009 residency led to the parting record he made with Paul de Jong as the Books, the electro-acoustic duo with whom he got his start a decade back and disbanded this past year. This time around, the venue served as the test course for Zammuto’s new rock band, and the show bore all the jittery excitement of a first gig.
With Zammuto’s brother Mikey Zammuto on bass, Gene Back on guitar and keyboard and Sean Dixon on drums, the full-band instrumentation was a visual departure from the Books’ sample-heavy formula and spare configuration, which often relied on video projections in the live context. Close your eyes, though, and Zammuto percolated with the same fractured polyrhythms as the Books. Back often cued up skronky samples on his MIDI keys, when he wasn’t playing lithe Afropop-inspired guitar parts, and Dixon brought warmth to percussion parts that would have sounded cold and digital on a Books record.
“Idiom Wind,” the band’s second song, was one of the first stand-alone tracks Zammuto released last year and seems to frame the modus of this band nicely. Punning on Dylan, Zammuto sings about the limitations of language and an education that works only to make one “headstrong.” Ironic, perhaps, given the cerebral nature of his catalog, but “things are getting overgrown,” he sings, “and it’s time for ruthless cutting.” Like much of the set, the song relied on a vocal processor that harmonized and digitized Zammuto’s voice into a robotic autotune. On “Yay,” the programmed oscillations sounded as if he were singing through a hammered dulcimer. The effect was best suited to “F U C-3PO,” an “angry” song, Zammuto qualified, but one of the band’s strongest, certainly their most proggy, with Back jumping between heavy guitar riffs and squirrely keyboard swells.
Needless to say, it was a bit of a surprise when the band broke into a fairly straight-laced rendition of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” early in the set. Zammuto’s voice and verbose lyrical sensibilities definitely lend themselves to Simon, but the song choice left plenty scratching their heads. An encore version of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” however, made a lot more sense. With little more than an EP in their repertoire (a full-length is due out in April), Zammuto filled out the set with select Books tunes. “Smells Like Content” was especially well placed, as was the band’s closer, to which a reel of home-video footage from Nick and Mikey’s childhood played as the band raced through a score of Mikey-penned changes that clowned as much as the teens onscreen.
With one test flight in front of a staid, sit-down audience under their belts, Zammuto has the promise to grow into the touring entity the Books never were. Stay tuned similarly for Achant, Emily McMehen and Geoffrey Sautner’s powerful image-driven film about Haitian Vodou trance rituals, which screened before the show and features a frenetic soundtrack by Nick Zammuto.