Thomas Wictor

The best concert I ever saw

The best concert I ever saw

I can’t count the number of concerts, live shows, or performances I’ve seen. The most professional was David Lee Roth in Tokyo, with Steve Vai on guitar, Gregg Bissonette on drums, and Matt Bissonette on bass. There was literally not a single wasted second. I’ve never seen a band work harder for its money. After each song, the lights onstage would go out for a second or two, Roth would shout, “Thank you!” and the next song would begin.

There was no bantering, no monologues, and none of that narcissistic exposition.

“This next song is a dirge I wrote after I burned an entire panful of blueberry muffins. It expresses all the horror and pain of that moment. I first tried it out in small clubs in Tierra del Fuego, and the response was so powerful, so overwhelming, that I approached my manager, the lovely Gloria Abdul-Hamid Akamatsu, and I said, ‘Hey, Glo, how about including ‘Blue Smoke and Tears’ on the next album?’ And she said, ‘Todd, in my twenty years at Random House, I’ve never heard a more beautiful song.’ So here it. Just for you. Because I, well, I love you all! And really I mean that.”

No, what Roth did was thank us for giving him our money, and at one point he briefly began speaking rapid-fire Spanish and then jokingly apologized for thinking he was in another country. That was it for talk. The rest was ninety minutes of music.

That was the most professional show I’ve ever seen.

The best concert I ever saw was by Ak & Zuie, consisting of Stephen Jay on bass and Pete Gallagher on drums. I wrote about them on pages 191 to 193 and 271 to 273 of Ghosts and Ballyhoo. I call Stephen Jay “a druid in Los Angeles” because I read that Stonehenge may have been designed as a musical stage that created a trancelike state in listeners. The megaliths cast “acoustic shadows” that have a physical effect on our bodies.

Stephen Jay discovered “harmonic rhythm”: harmonic intervals have regularly repeating rhythms. Boiled down to its most basic explanation, harmonies sound best when played at certain rhythms. The notes and beats dovetail perfectly, and your body reacts favorably to this inevitability. Edgar Allen Poe said that his stories existed independently in the ether, and he simply accessed them.

The correct use of harmonic rhythm can make songs sound as though they already existed, and the musician merely accessed a kind of natural perfection, a balance that was was determined by physics.

Stephen and Pete also play what they call “polymetric funk,” the application of harmonic rhythm to the drums and bass. Stephen describes the effect on his Website.

Ak & Zuie’s “polymetric funk” is a unique style that combines West African rhythms with elements of rock, jazz, and even Bach. Jay and Gallagher devote themselves to exploring how harmony and rhythm connect to create overtones and spaces that suggest entire ensembles. Through their use of interwoven time signatures, eight- and twelve- string basses and soaring vocals, they produce an enormous sound. Guitar, keyboard, horns, and percussion seem present, yet all that music actually emanates solely from bass and drums.

Listen to Ak & Zuie’s version of the Stephen Jay song “Go Like This.”

That’s a live performance. No overdubs. Drums, eight-string bass, and two vocal lines. That’s it. As you listen, you keep thinking you’re hearing an entire four- or five-piece band. This is how polymetric funk and harmonic rhythm work.

Stephen’s day job is bassist for “Weird Al” Yankovic, but he’s also a composer and solo artist. In the more than thirty years that I’ve been listening to bass, I’ve never seen such a technically accomplished bassist whose chops never overwhelmed the music. As a young bassist, I fell in love with the super-flashy bassists who slapped, tapped, and used their picks or fingers to produce machine-gun bursts.

Now, I never listen to them. Stephen is the only astoundingly technically virtuosic bassist whose work still moves me.

Stephen is the undisputed master of musical presque vu. We almost understand what his songs mean. That’s what makes us want to listen to them over and over. Concealment is extremely enticing, but it takes steely discipline on the part of the artist. The urge is to lay it all out so that people will say, “You’re BRILLIANT! BRILLIANT!” Concealing is a risk. Plenty of people are frustrated or even angered when an artist doesn’t spell out his or her intention.

And of course ambiguous art leaves itself open to misinterpretation. It can be disheartening when someone looks at or listens to something you’re created and interprets it precisely the opposite way you’d hoped. The only way to prevent that is to issue disclaimers or to instruct the viewers and listeners on the “proper” way to perceive. To me, this kills the art. I admire artists who take risks and leave it up to the public what to think.

When I saw Ak & Zuie, there were several times that I found myself entering the trancelike state that the ancients may have experienced at Stonehenge. That has never, ever happened with any other music I’ve heard. I was actually transported. Though fleeting, these moments left me euphoric. There was genuine magic in the air. Trying to remember exactly what it felt like is similar to recounting a dream. Telling you my dream is not the same as reproducing it. I’m a step removed, which is how it should be. Magic should never become commonplace.

Ak & Zuie applied their approach to cover songs. There were two incredible standouts. First was “Rock On” by David Essex.

The second was “Cinnamon Girl,” by Neil Young.

I’m not a Neil Young fan. He just never did anything for me. But Ak & Zuie’s take on “Cinnamon Girl” was unbearably beautiful and painful. It took me back to the happiest three years of my life, and it drove home the magnitude of the loss. As I listened to the song, I was back in Tokyo, the beneficiary of a special goofy smile on a pale, freckled face.

Almost noting is known about druids. Not a single artefact or image can be definitely identified as druidic, and their ceremonies and beliefs are a mystery. Historians even disagree on practices commonly attributed to them. They are almost-glimpsed.

However, Julius Caesar wrote that they believed in reincarnation. The night I heard the best concert of my life, I wished that someday I’d see that goofy smile again.

And now, all these years later, I think I will.

1988


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