STS9 concert review


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The Grateful Dead used to sing “you can’t go back and you can’t stand still” in their classic song “The Wheel,” but sometimes you can go home again. You won’t be the same as the last time you visited, because you’ve grown and changed. But there’s something to be said for re-visiting old haunts with new perspective. The merger of nostalgic sentiment with forward momentum can lead to new breakthroughs that encompass the best of both worlds.

Such a breakthrough is precisely what happened when Sound Tribe Sector 9 returned to the venerable Fillmore for a four-night run. The band made its Fillmore debut with a pair of shows back in February 2001, and became a local favorite over the next few years. But the group’s growing popularity eventually prompted a move to larger venues, making this run their first shows at the venue since a three-night Halloween 2004 stand.

Could it be mere coincidence that this particular weekend was also the 40-year anniversary of what’s come to be considered one of the Dead’s “holy grail” moments, a four-night run from February 27-March 2, 1969 at the Fillmore West, from which the band’s first live album was taken? (Not technically in the same building, but close enough for a karmic connection.) Something was in the air.

STS9 played to sold-out crowds on the first three nights, with Saturday’s show being predictably packed due to the fact that it’s simply everyone’s favorite night to party, so the guest list was packed too. “Shock Doctrine,” from 2008’s Peaceblaster, demonstrates the way the band has merged evolving technology with the genre-blending musical sensibilities they’ve been grooving with for over a decade. Bassist David Murphy leans away from his ax and toward his laptop/synth here, but it provides a fatter sound that boosts the groove. The band hasn’t been changing its sound so much as just continuing to evolve it with the variety of 21st-century sonic toys at its disposal. This has caused a few fans to drift away, but unlike so many electronica acts, STS9’s organic instrumental skills still remain at the heart of what they do.

“Tooth” and “Instantly” took the vibe higher as the collective groove really started to gel. Drummer Zach Velmer and percussionist Jeffree Lerner play as with one mind, with the percussion often functioning as the band’s lead instrument. The group pushed the jam at the end of “Instantly” over the top, with a new LED screen adding extra-dimensional flavor. There esd a feeling of being totally immersed in the Fillmore’s psychedelic space-time continuum.

“Empires,” another newer song that didn’t quite catch fire at the Berkeley Greek Theater last summer, found itself moving into a fresh jam that got the crowd moving again before fading back into more ambient territory. Thunder and rain effects greeted the entrance of “Water Song,” an older tune that hinted at Sunday’s catharsis to come. It’s a down tempo number with a contemplative vibe that builds into an angular groove, all of which seems designed to cleanse the soul.

But the highlight of the Saturday show might have been the succession of five consecutive debut tunes that used the band’s computer/synth “P.A.” mayhem in a skillful fashion to get the Fillmore swinging at an ecstatic peak. Keyboard wizard David Phipps led the way on “Tetherball Triumph,” which conjures a victorious vibe indeed, with a melody that sounds related to the band’s classic “Circus.” The triumphant spirit surged further in “Umbra,” with a science fiction sound, but the Mos Eisley Cantina band never sounded this tight. The band continued to soar during “Atlas” and “Vulcan.” Playing a stretch of new songs that keeps the crowd rocking just as hard as on the older tunes? It’s clearly a sign of a band riding a high and powerful creative wave.

“Economic Hit Man” closed out the lengthy set with a dark, yet bold high-energy sound that invoked the courageous waters navigated by author John Perkins in his biographical expose, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.” As with “Shock Doctrine,” a title taken from journalist Naomi Klein’s expose of disaster capitalism, the band demonstrates its socially conscious vibe and desire to get listeners thinking about the world around them after the dance party has come to an end.

An “Evasive/Kamuy” encore got the old school vibe going again, but the band trumped it by throwing down one of its strongest recent compositions, “New New 4 U U.” One of the highlights from the heart of their Halloween show in Austin, here the song extends the encore almost into the half-hour range with one of the band’s most epic songs yet – an instantly infectious groove that then spins through all kinds of wild changes, taking the crowd on a raucous roller coaster ride.

But it was all setting the stage for Sunday’s special show for the faithful, those who know that you don’t skip the last night of a four-show run just because it’s on a Sunday. Ironically, Sunday was the only night of the run that didn’t sell out. Or maybe it wasn’t ironic at all, since the crowd then mirrored those February 2001 shows, which were well-attended but not sold out. There was a certain symbolism in this that the band reflected back with a set list that was almost purely a throwback treat to that earlier era.

From the opening notes of “Baraka,” there was a sense that this show was going to be something special. The song holds a deeply spiritual attunement and the entire first set channels a vibe from the 2001-02 era, when the band became the pre-eminent local attraction at the fabled Fillmore. “STS9” took the kind vibe to a higher level of intergalactic groove ecstasy, with Phipps bringing more sci-fi laser sounds amidst the band’s collective jam that has the whole room united as one tribe under a groove.

The set break was yet another throwback. The band started experimenting with their format on the 2008 fall tour, moving to playing one longer set instead of two. But here the band played it old school in every way – the computers were mostly left on the curb, and the band took one of those classic breaks where everyone was smiling because the first set was oh so kind, and there’s still a whole second set to go.

The band threw another curveball by opening up the second set with the brand new “Central.” It’s got a decidedly spacey vibe, which seems apropos, because the set was about to launch into the stratosphere. “Really Wut” got the old-school sound going again with a major-key tune that invoked a vibe of peace and harmony. But it’s the classic “Tap In” that really ignited the assembled. One of the band’s most reliable fan favorites, the huge minor-key groove got the collective consciousness synched and then evolved into an ecstatic jam, as all five members united their parts into a whole greater than the sum of the parts. The groove slows at one point, giving Brown and Phipps a chance to noodle on top a bit, though Velmer still held it down tight. Brown’s lines started to ascend as the band built it back up to one more climactic peak.

Then, just when you thought it can’t get any better, they dropped “We’ll Meet in Our Dreams,” another psychedelic groove masterpiece, led by Phipps’ otherworldly synth line and Velmer’s tight beat. Maybe you’d put this song on a mixtape to your long-distance girlfriend awhile back. Maybe you’d really hoped to hear it when you were reunited at a couple of particular shows last year. But maybe they didn’t play it at either of those shows. Maybe the relationship faltered with a recent breakup, and you were still struggling with letting go. But maybe hearing the song here and now was like a cathartic synchronicity -- a confirmation that it just wasn’t meant to be, while simultaneously signaling that your true love is still out there. Maybe that’s all in your own head. But even if it is, hearing the dynamic song at this time, and in this place, provides a vibrational healing that you could only have found right here, right now. Such is the metaphysical power of a world-class improvisational band.

This reporter would not be the first amongst the fanbase to suggest finding a mystical, healing quality in the band’s music. One fan recently posted to the band’s message board saying that he’d “come to the conclusion that STS9 has a ‘direct line’ to God and they will be our Saviors in the trying times that lay ahead of us.” That may be a bit much, but he cited an interesting example with the band’s “Beyond Right Now,” from Peaceblaster:

“And when many disasters and difficulties come upon them, this song will testify against them, because it will not be forgotten by their descendants. -Deuteronomy 31:21 –

“I have a feeling that this may be referring to the song ‘Beyond Right Now’. It's clearly in the title and the powerful spirituality found in this song can't be argued. Its message comforts me every day in knowing that fact that one day I will be Saved.”

Literal comparison with the Bible may be a bit extreme for most, particularly if you’re not coming from a Christian faith background, but if this fan is comforted by such thoughts, who’s to say it doesn’t provide some personal meaning for him? The concept of a transcendent healing quality in rock ‘n’ roll music dates at least back to the era that begat the Fillmore, when ‘60s legends such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Santana and others birthed the Fillmore’s now-legendary psychedelic vibrations of higher consciousness.

The aptly titled “Dance” kept the old-school vibe going and the room moving, as the band launched into one of the evening’s most high-octane jams. Brown’s flanged guitar and Murphy’s warm bass synched with Velmer and Lerner’s superhuman percussion while Phipps pumped up the vibe with the space synths and the crowd grooved into a frenzy before the wave broke back into the opening melody. The resonance of the incredible rendition of “We’ll Meet in Our Dreams” popped back up when Phipps teased it during the “Hi-Key” set closer, as if a confirmation that yes, it was that deep.

“Thank you for letting us do our art,” said Murphy before the encore, demonstrating how the band sees their music as more than just a commodity, but as a true form of expression and unity. The rare and trippy “Roygbiv” won raves from the fan base on the message boards, but it’s the second encore of “Hubble” that really brought things home. Another of the band’s tried and true classics, it was a surprise at this point in the set. But a show like this needs an exclamation point, and did this tune ever deliver.

The LED screen showed a space satellite orbiting the Earth, as the Fillmore seemed transported to the outer realms. Velmer led the way as usual, but Brown was the shining star of this performance, with his nimble guitar lines dazzling over the energetic beat and cosmic synths. The room moved one more time to cloud nine as Brown led the band through the triumphant bridge section, while Murphy laid down some of his most beloved bass riffs and Phipps tickled the ivories. The dynamic interplay between the instruments showed off the band’s sound at its strongest.

Afterward, a crowd gathered outside at the fabled corner of Fillmore and Geary as a plastic bucket drummer laid down some rocking beats of his own and another neighborhood denizen threw down a superb rap about fighting the power. The skill and spontaneity fit the evening perfectly.

The show generated three times as much discussion as any of the first three nights at the band’s message board, which has inspired the band to reverse course on their strategy regarding the soundboard recordings. Before the run the band announced that there would be no taping allowed, nor would they be putting soundboard downloads on sale as usual, clearly implying that a new live album would be in the works. But the band is flooded with so many emails pleading for the recordings, that they changed their minds in order to meet the demand. This show was one for the ages, and this band is primed for a huge 2009.

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