in performance: stick men

stick men: michael bernier, pat mastelotto and tony levin. photo by pierre-emile bertona.

stick men. from left: michael bernier, pat mastelotto and tony levin. photo by pierre-emile bertona.

“Here’s a nice, sweet little ballad,” remarked Tony Levin as the regional debut performance of his Stick Men trio headed into the home stretch last night at the Southgate House in Newport.

Those in the crowd knew better. Sure, a crafty stylist like Levin – best known as a veteran touring protege of Peter Gabriel and mainstay member of King Crimson – can conjure a subtle, even bittersweet melody from the multi-stringed electric utensil known as the Chapman Stick. But with very few exceptions – like when Levin and fellow Stick player Michael Bernier harmonized to almost chamber-style effect by playing their instruments with bows – the performance went for the jugular.

The “ballad” turned out be Relentless, an instrumental that quickly shed its pastoral skin and accelerated with thick, percussive and percolating grooves. With drummer and fellow Crimson-ite Pat Mastelotto piloting the jittery tempos, Relentless was something of a joyride – as was the rest of this inventive two set, two hour-plus performance.

The Stick – which creates its string sounds mostly through tapping as opposed to plucking – isn’t exactly a new instrument, just an unexplored one. But Levin has long been one of its most visible pioneers, drawing on his background as masterful bass instrumentalist to unlock the instrument’s textural depth. For the better part of the evening, Levin manned the bass role again. And hearing him roll out the fat, bottom end bravado of Inside the Red Pyramid and Speedbump was a blast.

In contrast, Bernier handled the lion’s share of the Stick’s guitar-like leads, from the prog-ish turns during Scarlet Wheel to the wild advancements that made a 15-minute distillation of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite sound, alternately, like an acid-tinged rave and a cosmic polka dervish.

Mastelotto was the utility man, plotting heavy organic rhythms under the Stick work but also utilizing a battalion of electronic devices and pads as both ensemble ambience and a playful backing chorus.

All of the trio’s fine new Soup album was performed. But the elders in the crowd were rewarded by a pair of Crimson covers that bookended the concert – the opening Indiscipline, with loads of guitar-like squalls that quickly introduced Bernier’s Stick prowess, and the encore of Red, which happily de-evolved into an exquisite electric firestorm full of cunning, heart and, dare we say it, a very rockish Stick-to-it-ness.

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