“I think it’s time for some Stravinsky,” Tony Levin said as Tuesday night’s prog tour de force program by Stick Men headed into the home stretch at the 20th Century Theatre in Cincinnati.
Well, sure. The trio had already plowed through two thirds of its recent album, Deep. The six tunes performed from the recording placed Levin (a veteran bassist with extensive ties to pop and jazz in addition to prog rock) on Chapman stick (a still-novel instrument that combines bass and guitar strings, but emits sounds by taps rather than plucks) alongside acoustic/electric drummer Pat Mastelotto (Levin’s bandmate in the warhorse prog troupe King Crimson) and touch guitarist Markus Reuter (an Austrian born instrumentalist who played a guitar-like variation of the stick). Interspersed were works from various incarnations of King Crimson that bore strong melodic and textural similarities to the Deep music. So why not toss Stravinsky in with the lot?
What resulted was a merry rampage that explained much of the trio’s animated but immensely informed curiosity. During a pared-down arrangement of the Firebird Suite, Levin found ways to transform some the piece’s most powerful and familiar melodic themes into rubbery bass riffs while Reuter’s playing shaded the music with guitar colors that shifted from metallic to meditative. Under that, Mastellotto, a player of tireless strength and precision, hammered out grooves that made the whole hybrid sound very much like a product of pure rock ’n’ roll ingenuity.
The Deep tunes were exactly that. The compositions usually placed Levin in the bass role and Reuter in the guitar seat, although Cusp reversed that game plan. Regardless, the music was long on sinewy, deep pocket rhythms instigated by Levin’s rumblings on stick. From there, songs like Nude Ascending a Staircase and especially the suite-like Whale Watch navigated all manner of tricky shifts in tempo and temperament. That latter also possessed a sort of nautical ambience between sections that gave the music an often orchestral air.
The Crimson moments for the most part were surprises. Vrooom Vroooom and the power chord-crazy encore of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part 2 were greeted like golden pop hits by the crowd, but Industry (a true obscurity from the ‘80s era Crimson) proved a glorious mood piece that had Levin and Mastellotto playing their respective instruments with bows before the music erupted into a bludgeoning, slo-mo groove. Even less expected was Breathless, a forgotten piece from Crimson chieftain Robert Fripp’s 1979 solo album Exposure (it represents one of the first recorded collaborations between Fripp and Levin). Here, Reuter mixed lush, elongated guitar lines with chiming, synth-like backdrops to echo the blurred sonic soundscapes that, even in the ’70s, were a Fripp trademark. From there, Levin and Mastellotto pumped up the power chords for a show of prog strength that was crafty, intuitive and profoundly playful.