Tuesday, April 10, 2012

LIVE REVIEW: Zammuto / Explosions in the Sky at the Boulder Theater 4/5/2012

By Steve Jones.

photo courtesy of the Boulder Theater
I jumped on this show as soon as I saw that Explosions in the Sky would be headlining. I'm neither a devout nor regular consumer of Explosions' discography, but I'd heard too many good things from friends and family alike about their live performances (words like "religious" and "transcendent" and "experience" were liberally tossed around) to pass up an opportunity a few blocks away from my house.  But my anticipation towards the show grew dramatically when it was revealed that new labelmate Zammuto would be opening for them.  Zammuto, for those not in the know, is a 4-piece band headed by Nick Zammuto, formerly one half of the now unfortunately defunct The Books.  More importantly, just that week Zammuto had released their debut self-titled record, and let me assure you that it is one of the best records of 2012 (a review of that coming soon? Maaaaybe.).  Honestly, I was more excited for Zammuto, so do forgive me if I focus more on the opening act.

I got to the venue as soon as my schedule would allow, which was pretty close to when the doors opened, and was immediately surprised at the line of people stretching around the corner of the street.  Now, it wasn't that long a line, and I was out of it and into the building within five minutes, but it was still the longest queue I've experienced for a show here, which spoke to the crowd's anticipation.  Regardless, I was able to secure a position very close to front stage center, and I had no qualms with that.

Zammuto took to the stage at 9.  We had one gentleman on drums, one on bass, one on guitar and keyboards, and Nick on guitar, vocals, laptop, and whathaveyou.  To preface, Nick sheepishly admitted to the audience that tonight's show would be only the ensemble's 4th performance ever, which garnered much whooping and encouragement from the crowd.  From there, they immediately jumped into a rendition of "Groan Man, Don't Cry" that was quite faithful to the album's arrangement.  Its flavor of spastic pop, led by a jerky guitar riff and supported by liberal vocoder, established the tone for the set.  There were some noticeable nerves coming from the band during the first few tracks--understandable for it being their first show on this tour and their fourth show ever--and I could tell some of the crowd weren't quite sure how to process what they were hearing, but those who were enjoying Zammuto were really enjoying Zammuto.  As was I, and especially so when they hit their stride with the tracks "Zebra Butt" and "F U C-3PO."  I was initially disappointed that they chose to pipe in the pseudo-text-to-speech vocals of "Zebra Butt" rather than sing it themselves or do something different from the studio version, but the band just killed the song instrumentally, and it was fun to watch Nick's expert knob twiddling produce the throaty bass sounds of the introduction.  This energy was continued into "F U C-3PO," where you could tell that the band was having a lot of fun playing off of each other.

When Zammuto switched gears to one of the album's more meditative tracks "Harlequin," I found the result quite pretty.  In terms of variety, I enjoyed that the band contrasted the complex density of most of their previous songs with the use of empty space on this one.  However, this empty space unfortunately highlighted a really noisy and inattentive crowd.  It was rude, but it didn't stop me from enjoying the song.  But if I had one complaint up until that point, it was that the songs sounded too familiar and were played too closely to the studio versions.  I mean, it makes sense when you consider that this is a band just starting out, so they haven't had much time at all to experiment onstage.  Also, I had probably listened to the album far more so than the average attender of that concert, so what was familiar to me was likely new and exciting to them.  It was still a little disappointing.

The last three tracks from Zammuto dispelled this disappointment by creating an audiovisual experience with the use of a projector that had been lying in wait at the front of the stage.  Nick first asked the audience if they were fans of Tech Deck skateboards, which didn't receive much of a reaction, but that was probably due to the fact that it was hard to understand him through the mic (at least it was were I was standing).  But as soon as the video started and a hairy arm could be seen performing an ollie with one of those finger skateboards, the crowd's response was one of acknowledgement and appreciation.  I was never able to do anything of merit with Tech Decks, but there were kickflips and grinding and manuals aplenty in the video, which acted as a surprisingly good compliment to "Too Late to Topologize."  This was superceded by the next accompaniment to album opener "Yay," which was a surreal and hilarious collage of stock photos of people suffering from back pain, headaches, and other unidentifiable maladies.  Some of the audience were scratching their heads, but some of the audience were fucking loving it.

But I think even those people previously on the fence about Zammuto had to be impressed with their closer.  Rather than another track from their self-titled, Nick told us that their last song would be the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."  I recognized the title as that of the old standard, but I didn't expect them to actually play it.  And play it they did, accompanied by a video of an adorable old bearded gentlemen sporting an autoharp.  It struck me as a callback to the days of The Books, with the autoharp video being cut and manipulated to pay a glitchy version of "Battle Hymn," which the band supported with their own instruments.  Words really don't do justice to how impressive it was to see and hear (the alternate title "The Greatest Autoharp Solo of All Time" is accurate).  It cemented in my mind at least how talented this group of musicians was, and how many more surprises Nick Zammuto must have in store for us.

Although I loved the opportunity to see both Zammuto and Explosions in the Sky on the same night, I did question the decision of booking them together.  They seemed like two very disparate acts, and while their live shows proved that, the experience also gave me my answer.  Both artists knew how to entertain a crowd, but Zammuto were much more steeped in a cerebral kind of oddness, in music that was fun but benefited all the same from some dissection and analysis.  Explosions, on the other hand, appealed to the audience's emotional core.  Their sound, while dense, was not all that complex, nor did it need to be.  Their show instead relied upon the creation and relation of tension in their music, such that it would produce the same reaction in the audience.  Not once during their 90 minute set did the music stop, and this constant barrage necessitated one to turn off one's higher brain functions.  After what had been a ~16 hour day for me at that point, that was what I needed to do.  And this relinquishing of the self to the ebb and flow of  the music did mirror a religious kind of experience quite well.

After the lights went up, the crowd lamented the lack of an encore, but I think the show ended perfectly where it did, with Munaf Rayani punishing the floor with a tambourine.  This footage generously provided by YouTube user tksaurusrex should give you a taste of why this was the show's appropriate climax and highlight.

An entirely enjoyable and worthwhile show overall.  Afterwards, I purchased one of the limited edition hand-screen-printed LPs of Zammuto's debut, and I strongly encourage you all to do the same, if only because how else will you obtain a record with a zebra's butt on the cover?  I also got to chat a bit with both Mike and Nick Zammuto, though by "chat" I mean "stumble over compliments about a really awesome show and album."  If I were a better blogging hipster, maybe I could have asked them some interesting questions for this review, but it's actually pretty impossible for me to act cool and collected around people I find extremely talented.  So my apologies to you, dear reader, for my lack of journalistic prowess, and my gratitude to Zammuto and Explosions in the Sky for an unforgettable night.

(Steve Jones enjoys sitting there, acting like a horse's ass, man. You can stay up to date with his tomfoolery on his Twitter @vestenet.)

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