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Tony Levin and the Stick Men

by Jeff Nania on March 28, 2013

VAN DYCK, MARCH 21

The setup was reminiscent of a power trio, but the band actually were far from that. Both Tony Levin and Markus Reuter play Chapman Stick-style guitar-ish instruments where the main mode of sound production is tapping the strings against a fret matrix. Levin’s instrument has 12 strings, while Reuter’s has eight. This setup allows these guys to span the entire harmonic range, changing off bass duties with melodies, chords, and rhythmic motifs.

“We’ve been touring a little less than last year,” Levin said. “Last year, name a country: We were there. . . . Last week we were in Japan with The Crimson ProjeKCt with Adrian Belew.”

Sure enough, that group, featuring Levin, Reuter, and drummer Pat Mastelotto, play classic King Crimson material (Levin and Mastelotto are original members), and the trio brought a few of those tracks to the Van Dyck with them, including “Industry.”

“For those of you who were here for the first set, here’s something we didn’t do. This is a King Crimson tune from way back,” Levin said as they launched into a futuristic soundscape. Most of the pieces featured long through-composed sections that had very specific sounds, samples, and time feels that changed so often it was much easier to feel them rather than count. A welcome reprieve from all the mathematics came with a piece called “Open (Pt. 3 – Truncheon)” from the album Open.

“The CD Open was a bunch of improvs,” Levin explained. “There are different kinds of improvs, and this one was based on themes, which is good because we can redo something like the tune for you.” This one was a groove-based improv in four that was the most rhythmically simplistic thing of the night. It started with electronic samples launched by Mastelotto while Levin shredded some high guitar stuff emitted in reverse through effects.

Aside from the Crimson tunes, they stuck mainly to material from their 2012 release, Deep.

“Crack In The Sky” was a highlight from Deep. The piece was broken up into a verse-chorus structure with Levin doing a spoken-word performance through a frequency shifter. “Gaze in wonder/At the crackle in the sky,” went the poem, as one of Mastelotto’s electronic drum surfaces exerted a jarring “crack.”

The Stick Men certainly have a sound that is more closely related to classical music than to riff-based power rock. They made this abundantly clear with their encore, Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” but also by their original tone poem called “Whale Watch.”

“Has anyone gone out on a whale watch?” Levin asked the crowd. “By the show of hands, it looks like only a few of you, so the rest of you are gonna do it now musically.” He described the contour of the piece. “It starts off and then the boat chugs out there, and then a whistle blows when there was a whale, and some whales, especially humpbacks, hang around and play with you . . . So, here we go on a whale watch.”

Levin started this one with a high, fretless-bass sounding solo melody that gave way to a majestic guitar. The low tom-toms drove the next part and you could hear the boat chugging out into the open water as a playful melody emerged between Levin and Reuter, perhaps signifying the whales swimming up to the boat on either side.

As I walked the sidewalk leaving the Van Dyck, I heard a couple (probably in their late 50s or early 60s) talking. The man said, “Well . . . that was certainly different.”