Monday, November 19, 2012

Xenat-Ra: Bombs Away!!! Live in Corvallis

The Bombs Away Cafe was the road less traveled this past Saturday night in Corvallis, the Oregon State Beavers game with Cal taking the spotlight, but Xenat-Ra made that road as palatable as it could have been.  Misery steered clear as rhythms and a whole lot more shook the very foundations of the small and cozy restaurant/lounge/music venue and wowed an all too small crowd, considering the quality of the music.  More than once I asked myself if anyone in Corvallis and indeed the whole Willamette Valley knew what they were missing and surmised that they did not.  I expected a larger crowd.  Xenat-Ra is a band worthy of a larger crowd.  They are major league worthy.

Of course, I didn't know that when I walked eight blocks through the rain to the Bombs Away.  I could hear the loud cheers from the football stadium and saw the fireworks which evidently heralded a score and could hear the incredibly loud foghorn which succeeded it.  I looked up only when I had to, the rain carried by gusts directly into the eyes when it was not streaming down the back of my neck.  My shoes were getting wet, my eyes blurry from the rain, the puddles making my walk longer with each one I had to circumvent.  Still, my spirits were not dampened.  I had listened to Xenat-Ra's new album numerous times over the previous days and, truth be told, was overwhelmed.  I was anxious to see if they could pull it off, Science For the Sound Man having an intense drive and an other-music-worldly sense of non-direction.  If that confuses you, imagine my confusion when I first sat down at the computer expecting a bit of prog and was swept up into a whirlwind of jazz, hip-hop, rock, third world rhythms and, yes, prog, though it was prog like I had seldom heard.  It looked to be an interesting night.

Unlike most other times I go out to hear live music, I sat down to a cold glass of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale and opened my notebook and started writing right away:

"It is a cold and rainy night in Corvallis," I wrote, "and the Beavers are playing Cal and the Bombs Away is as empty as I have seen it at 9 PM, weekend or not.  Usually, the tables are filled with patrons wolfing down one of the many excellent hot dishes that smell so good and which I have yet to try.

"Whether the Beavers win or lose is not a subject here tonight, the main question being when Xenat-Ra will take the stage.  There is a possibility that they will wait for stragglers from the game, hoping the cover charge might cover gas, though if the crowd stayed this small it would cover little else.  Although maybe that is overstatement or even completely off-base.  The band is here and setting up and seem amazingly happy, having been comped on food and drinks, but more because they like being together and, more important, love playing before a crowd.

"I expected a young bunch in their late twenties but they are older, ages ranging from early thirties to fifty.  I am taken somewhat aback because the music I have been listening to demands an incredible amount of focus and energy.

"No, what they play is not hip-hop.  Not totally.  They incorporate jazz and prog and hard rock and many others influences, but when there are vocals, it is hip-hop.  At least on record.

"They do have a record.  A real honest to God piece of vinyl, in fact, or should I say pieces.  It is actually a double album packaged in two single album packages, 150 grams worth, by God, and the drummer, JD Monroe, seems quite proud of that fact.  'Not 180,' he apologizes, as if apologies were necessary.  'We pressed it on vinyl for the warmth,' he said, before launching into a lengthy comparison of formats.  Just the smile on his face explained it.  No words necessary.

"There are six in the band and I end up talking with two--- JD and fellow percussionist Joel Hirsch.  The topics of conversation ranged from food to technical aspects of music to musical background.  JD had grown up in Corvallis.  Joel lived in L.A. and New York before finding his way here.  They obviously are glad to be here.  They are obviously happy to be playing music.

"They head to the stage, one at a time, for a sound check.  It is going to be a long night, I think, as the room seemed to shrink with each piece of equipment brought on stage.  Still, even if the sound is ear-splitting, it is already worth it, having learned the basics of Math Rock, a term I had heard but had never had defined.  I learned the importance of sound, the technical aspects, as the band's sound man floated around the room discussing it.  I thought that the sound man's goal might be impossible to reach, the room so small and packed with equipment.  How little I know.

"The band members spent the last ten minutes before starting moving tables and chairs off the floor.  It seemed a lot of work but they were determined.  When they finally took their places, JD's bone-shaking thumps on the bass drum and the low notes of the keyboards and electronics shook the very soul.  I regretted not bringing earplugs.  I prayed that the sound man was as good as his talked because he certainly talks a good game, but you never know until the music starts.

"I frantically scratched notes, making sure I noted that it took two years for the album, start to finish.  Most of it was recorded in three days two years ago, live, and they worked in it over the next year or two while gathering funds to press.  Not much, he said.  Just the occasional dub.  Like the congas and percussion of Joel Hirsch.  That's how he joined the band.  He sat in on the sessions and it worked so well that they asked him to join."

That's as far as I got with my notes.  I would have written more but for the thumping bass drum and syncopated rhythms as JD started things off and when the band came in, one instrument at a time, thinking was out. It was an odd cross between the Allmans and The Dead, this jazzy rambling start to the evening, an old trunk with popped clutch, the rhythms starting and stopping as the engine struggled to engage and then.....  And then all hell broke loose.  Xenat-Ra did exactly what I was afraid they might not be able to do--- rock the house.

I started smiling about halfway through the first song (if song it can be called and I say that in the most positive manner possible) and I already knew it was going to be a long night.  Not because the music was bad but because it was so good that my face locked in that smile and my face started to hurt.  It reminds me of the night I saw Tom Waits in this little basement on San Diego State's campus.  I laughed so hard the first fifteen minutes that I couldn't really enjoy the rest of the show.  It just hurt too much.  Well, here I was again, face muscles clinched and headache on its way.  Again, not because the music was bad but because it was so goddamned good!

This is not the kind of music I would take home to my mother.  It is intense, riffy, jazz-heavy and prog'd out.  You probably either love nit or hate it.  The people that night loved it, from the headbangers (there were a few) and the body shifters (with different music, they would have been dancers, but how can you dance to music which changes time signatures at the drop of a hat).

Indeed, Monroe and Hirsch worked their asses off working the beat(s) and the band, individually and together, was right there with them.  Monk Metz, the vocalist/rapper who spewed words faster than a woodchipper on acid, and not just words but the right words.  I had listened closely during his sound check and the guy has a way with vocals-as-percussion as well as lyrical poetry, which this was.  Not only that, but he had a stage presence which was both confident and inclusive--- his fist pumps and tense poses for the music and not the vapid air guitar poses most of us strike, thinking we look cool when we really don't.  No, Metz has it down, right down to practically disappearing in stage when the instrumental side of the band took off, kneeling on one knee, head down and bobbing to the beat.  He was listening--- not for his cue but to the music.

Guitarist Mark France mirrored that odd duck lieutenant on Monk, the TV show--- smiling when listening but eyes glued to the frets when his fingers, at times twisted like tentacles, worked their way up and down the neck.  The music was a challenge to him as much as it was to each member of the group, but France made it look like work.  The results were at times magnificent (especially when he dropped to the floor to mess with his foot pedals while launching electronic missives straight out of Robert Fripp) and always spot on.  And when he wasn't doing that, he plucked chords or strings as if he wasn't even paying attention at all while watching the soloist or ensemblist of the moment take their turn.

People who weren't following the music could easily toss saxophonist Matt Calkins onto that heap pile of instruments-added-for-effect (God, but I've heard statements like that too often in my life), but those would be the ones who didn't get the importance of Jack Lancaster to Blodwyn Pig or David Jackson to Van der Graaf Generator.  When Calkins wasn't supplying the musical link while the others ran amok, he was adding to the percussion.  He is the utility infielder necessary to bridge the gap during times of madness.

Dave Trenkel.  What to say about Dave.....  The quietest of the bunch.  Not on his keyboards, which he played to absolute perfection, but in presence.  He watched and smiled and made the sounds coming from his amp seem so easy to produce.  His full beard snaked out of his wool hat--- if there was anyone on that stage who personified the plaid-wearing lumberjack, it was Dave--- and made him the friendly sasquatch.  He was cool.  No, he didn't act cool.  He just was.  And he played the different keyboards with the mastery of a Gregg Rolie dipped in electronic sauce (I mention Rolie because a couple of times I heard that magic organ sound of Santana, helped along by those superb conga rhythms emanating from the jungle master, Joel Hirsch.

I know.  It sounds like I'm giving them major league credit.  I am.  They deserve it.  No other band in the prog/jazz (and now, hip-hop) vein has impressed me as much except maybe Ticktockman, a Seattle steam engine of a band I cannot stop talking about.  And I'm digging it.  Now I can compare the two bands and hopefully make some points.  That sometimes music is played for music's sake.  That music can be infectious.  That staying within your "safe" zone is not good.  I mean, sure, Led Zeppelin has recorded some good music.  Excellent music.  But surrounding yourself even with the best can be extremely limiting on more than just the musical level.  It can cause brain rot.  And rotting brains smell.  Hence, the walking dead.

Well, these guys aren't dead.  They are, in fact, very much alive.  Alive and driven.  Driven by the rhythm.  Driven by the music.  Just plain driven.  And if you don't believe me, please follow this link to their Bandcamp page.  Listen.  Then, if you are of a mind, purchase their double-LP package or a CD.  Either comes with free download and I'm telling you right now, this album is at the top of this generation's collector's item list.  That's Science For the Soundman.  And while you're there, why not check out their Xenat-Ra Live album.  Right now, it's name-your-own-price and, what the hell, you can stream it to hear what you're getting. 

Speaking of the sound man, he was the seventh man this night.  He mixed the band so well that the sound, loud as it was, was perfectly balanced.  I've been to shows in small rooms and come home with ears bleeding.  When I left the Bombs Away, they didn't even ring.  I didn't get your name, pal, but you deserve an award.