In the ongoing spirit of invoking British comedy TV: “And now for something completely different.”
All of my Bay Area shows were organized by Brian Kenney Fresno, but the third show, at an Oakland space called The Fishtank, was the one I knew the least about. It would turn out to be one of the single most unusual and memorable gigs I’ve ever played, in a tour that was already filled with unique shows.
The bill for the Fishtank show was originally slated to feature Brian Kenney playing after an acoustic ensemble, and Brian had been gracious enough to see about getting me in on the action as well (in order to, as he put it, “make sure that you go home tired.”) Brian’s friend (and Fishtank organizer) Aaron Seeman was kind enough to accommodate this.
As soon as I got to the Fishtank, I started to realize that this gig was another situation that I was glad to have had little prior knowledge about, due to the immense potential for intimidation. The “acoustic band” Brian had mentioned turned out to be the Fishtank Ensemble, which described themselves thusly:
“Fishtank is a lively and unusual ensemble consisting of violin, saw, accordion, shamisen, flamenco guitar, bass and voice. Romanian folk music forms the bulk of the material, with a healthy helping of Flamenco, Swedish folk
music, Klezmer, other folk sources and original songs.”
It turned out that I’d already heard of this ensemble, as several of its members are also involved with the Santa Cruz-based Estradasphere, a maniacal and virtuosic multi-genre band that blends metal, jazz, video game theme songs, European folk music, and God knows what else. In short, they’re serious players doing very serious music.
Even more of a surprise was that one of the members of the Fishtank Ensemble was Kevin Kmetz, a fellow who I’d gone to CalArts with 10 years ago (!!!) Kevin’s a prodigious guitar player, with phenomenal technique, an expressive touch, and a frequently loopy sense of humor, and it had been several years since I’d seen him. Added to that was the intrigue that Kevin recently switched over to Shamisen, and now plays it as his primary instrument.
As I started loading my equipment in and got a feel for the room, the Fishtank Ensemble’s CD was playing on the house stereo. The more I listened to it, the more intimidated I became: this was seriously virtuosic, demanding music – lots of unison melody lines, frequently flying by at ridiculously fast speeds, often in odd time signatures, played with some serious soul. To make matters even more daunting, it was decided that I’d go on after Fishtank, and before Brian Kenney. Holy cow…
The Fishtank Ensemble played two sets of material, all of which was being recorded for a possible album release. The gig was every bit as impressive as the pre-performance recording would have suggested – even moreso, really, as there’s nothing like a live performance to bring this sort of music across in its full glory. I have a fair amount of experience with this general sort of musical territory, as it’s fairly closely related to the East European folk music that I spent a lot of time studying with Miroslav Tadic in my CalArts days. Basically, the band completely tore it up – all monster players, exceptionally well-rehearsed.
Hearing Kevin Kmetz on the Shamisen was pretty mind-boggling – for those not familiar with the Shamisen, it’s a Japanese three-stringed, fretless instrument, sort of vaguely like a cross between a guitar and a banjo, and played with a pick roughly the size and shape of an ice scraper. Kevin’s only been playing the instrument for about a year, and was keeping up with material’s melodic contours and blazing tempos with absolutely no trouble whatsoever. Truly scary stuff. (You can see photos from the band’s set this particular evening here.)
In previous entries, I’ve talked about the differences between a “listening” audience and an “entertainment” audience, and the Fishtank show was definitely a hardcore listening environment. Everyone in the audience had come specifically to listen, some of them driving up from Santa Cruz (which is over an hour south of Oakland). Historically, my best gigs have happened in bars and coffee shops, while my more difficult shows have tended to be in the more listening-heavy environments. And since I’d been squeezed into the bill late in the game, none of the audience knew that I would be playing; for that matter, no one other than Brian Kenney had any real sense of who I was in the first place (including Aaron, who had been so kind as to give me a performance slot without hearing my stuff ahead of time!)
These were some of the thoughts that were going through my head as the Fishtank Ensemble wrapped up their final number – featuring a dizzying torrent of unison 16th-notes around the 200 BPM range – and I started setting up my gear, feeling about three feet tall. I prefaced my set by thanking Aaron and Brian for having me on, and for admitting that I wouldn’t have dared to go on after the Fishtank Ensemble if I’d had any clue as to what they sounded like.
The next 25 minutes or so were unlike any other gig I’ve ever played – the volume was strictly living-room level, quiet enough that people could easily talk over it at a normal tone of voice. And they did talk over it, in the best possible sense – answering different musical phrases with comments, calls, and laughter (again, in the best possible way). The audience was exceptionally warm and receptive, and although I never forgot that every sound was under intense scrutiny, it would be hard to imagine a more inviting or intimate performance environment.
It’s really amazing how much of a difference a receptive audience can make to a performance, particularly when it’s an improvisationally-oriented situation that’s based on trying to “read the room” and respond to whatever vibe happens to be there. Getting a tangible sign of encouragement is great; getting audibly tangible marks of encouragement from a crowd of serious musicians and music-lovers is getting close to an ideal listening situation.
This wasn’t the most polished show I’ve ever played in my life – the intensity and concentration of listening was a bit nerve-wracking, particularly during “Signify.” There’s a pretty big difference between an ensemble of acoustic musicians tearing through a well-rehearsed reporitoire and a solo guitarist jamming away with a digital looper, which took a bit of the edge off of my jitters – the less overt similarity there is between two acts, the less inclined I am to think in terms of one being better than the other, as it becomes the proverbial apples vs. oranges issue. “Signify,” however, is a very exotic, Indian-inflected tune, and the only looping involved is a pseudo-tambura drone which I play “regular” guitar over… which I realized – as I was playing it – was close enough to the Fishtank Ensemble’s reporitoire to invite comparisons. Nerve-wracking? For sure, but – in spite of a couple of enormous clams – it ended up coming across the best that it ever has in concert.
The comments afterwards were all very strong, and in some cases ridiculously flattering. And for the second time in about 24 hours, I had Northern Californians telling me that my music reminded them of extremely potent drug episodes from their past. Aside from reiterating my disclaimer from the Odeon Bar report, I have to wonder what kind of reception I’d get by playing in Humboldt County…
File this gig on the opposite end of the spectrum from the previous night at the Odeon Bar – and file all three of these Bay Area dates as being amongst the most successful and gratifying shows I’ve ever played.
Brian Kenney Fresno was up after me, of course, and if I’ve been neglectful in describing his sets over these three gigs, it’s mainly because I’m hard-pressed to come up with words that truly do him justice. Getting the chance to see him do his thing up close for three nights in a row was a real treat, and it gave me an even deeper amount of respect and appreciation for what he does. Each of his solo sets were full-length, yet there was very little overlap of material amongst the three nights – he has a catalog of dozens and dozens of utterly hillarious, unspeakably bizarre songs, and his delivery is so relentlessly entertaining that it’s very easy to overlook what an immensely talented and accomplished musician he is. He tours all over the place – you simply must catch his show if he comes anywhere near your neck of the woods.
And once again, none of these three fabulous gigs would have happened if it hadn’t been for his generously bringing me into his fold for a few days, which I’m intensely grateful for. I drove up to the Bay Area feeling uncertain about what I had to say with my live looping work, and I left there feeling like I’d reached a new level of comfort, confidence, and musicality with my solo performances.
Of course, it’s times like this that a reality check usually rears its head in life. And in my case, that particular reality check would come a couple of days later, in the form of one of the most humbling experiences a musician can face: playing a gig in Los Angeles.