Where I live in the city of Montreal, the people are absolutely mad, and I do mean mad when it comes to their hockey team, The Montreal Canadiens; even more so when the team is two rounds deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After a few weeks of running on fumes from watching not only the Canadiens but also a fair share of late night west coast games as well, I couldn't think of a better way to get hockey off the brain for a few hours than to head to enjoy the supreme progressive sounds of Stickmen.
If you aren't familiar with the name, the band which consists of Michael Bernier, Pat Mastelotto (drums) and Tony Levin is a reference to the Chapman Stick or the Stick as it's commonly known as, which is an instrument played by both Bernier and Levin. Levin is of course world renowned for his bass and Stick playing and most recognizable for his work with Peter Gabriel, King Crimson and Liquid Tension Experiment, not to mention the countless number of sessions he has appeared on dating back to the early 70's.
Stickmen was born out of Levin's Stickman solo album from 2007 so when it came time to hit the road he enlisted fellow Crimson band mate Mastelotto ( who also played on the album) as well as Bernier, who ironically was the person who helped teach Levin how to play the Stick in the first place. Now with their first album as Stickmen entitled Soup under their belt the trio began a quick two week North American jaunt, which brought them to the intimate Cabaret music hall in Montreal on Tuesday May 11th.
As an added bonus on this evening anyone who bothered to show up early was treated to some absolutely gorgeous renditions of Genesis songs performed on a small keyboard, courtesy of David Myers from the premier Genesis tribute band The Musical Box. Based in Montréal Myers and The Musical Box have had an ongoing love affair with the province of Québec since their formation in the early 90's, so it wasn't surprising that not only did he receive a warm welcome, but the audience remained quiet for the full duration as he played his classical interpretations of some of the best loved songs from the bands back catalogue. Myers is an extremely personable individual and he developed a rapport with the audience right away by joking between songs that the evening's performance and perhaps one other show in Québec City would be his world tour. He also feigned surprise that the audience was familiar with some of the lesser known tracks such as "The Colony Of Slippermen" and "Can-Utility and the Coastliners". All stage charm aside what really shone through was the boundless amount of talent this man possesses as he captivated the audience. I apparently wasn't the only one impressed by his playing, because two guys seated directly in front of me were performing their own air piano renditions in time to the music, eyes shut tight and with such animated facial expressions they both appeared as if they were on the verge of an orgasm. With time running down he finished his forty five minute set with roughly the last half of "The Cinema Show" which sounded absolutely fantastic. David Myers is a truly gifted musician and he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand right from the very first notes. It was a great way to kick off the evening and anyone around town hoping to catch him again in the future won't have to wait long as he will be the opening act for the upcoming Three Friends shows in Montréal and Québec City next month.
After a few days rehearsal and a warm up gig in Woodstock N.Y. the show in Montréal was the first official date on the Stickmen tour, but if there was any rust to be blown off it sure wasn't apparent on this night as they hit the stage running and never looked back for almost two hours. After the band tore though their opening song "Sasquatch" they quickly moved on to the first of their two King Crimson numbers, delivering an absolutely scorching take on "Red". With Mastelotto providing the requisite metallic thrust for this high octane instrumental Bernier proceeded to flat out kill this song by not only replicating Robert Fripp's monstrous guitar riffs but he even played the solos perfectly as well! As I watched and listened as the song played I thought I was witnessing a new Crimson rising from the ashes.
The set list relied heavily on the new material from Soup and I'm here to tell you that as good as the new album is, and it is a very strong effort with more than enough pyrotechnics to satisfy the diehard instrumental prog rock fan, what's on the album ultimately doesn't hold a candle to the live renditions. Armed with Pat's drums, midi samples, and bells and whistles behind them Tony and Michael dug their teeth into the title track, which is highlighted by a distinctly Bootsy Collins-esque vocal from Levin. Likewise the three part "Hands" suite, another challenging track that the band was only playing for the second time, found Tony introducing a rather interesting miking technique for his vocal as he sang directly into what appeared to be a small oxygen mask mounted to the mic stand. "Inside The Red Pyramid" saw Bernier and T.Lev taking bows to their Stick's which when filtered through the effects pedals made it sound very much like a cello. Another highlight off the new disc was "Scarlet Wheel" an incredibly rich sounding, multi-layered track made all the more effective by Mastelotto's splashes of sampled electronics and funk styled percussion underneath a surprisingly strong vocal from Bernier.
The last quarter of the concert though was really where the guys took their performance to a entirely different level as the trio tore into "Fugue", a funky, bass heavy track off of Soup and followed that closely by "Tsunami Surfing", a song which Levin remarked that they had to perform instrumentally in Chile in the wake of the tsunami that was triggered after the massive earthquake earlier this year. The set concluded with the bands most ambitious piece yet, a full on rendition of Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite". Trust me you'll love their take on this classical masterpiece. There were times throughout their interpretation that simultaneously had the hair on the back of my neck standing up and my jaw so far agape that it was probably hanging somewhere around my feet. After a brief break the band encored with a stellar version of Crimson's "Indiscipline" that came complete with an extended opening section before Bernier finally stepped up to the mic to offer up his best Adrian Belew impression. It worked like a charm and after they closed out the evening with the last track off of Soup "Relentless", I think that judging by the look on their faces most of the people leaving the club, including myself were absolutely blown away by what we had just witnessed. Stickmen are a MUST SEE live act, period!
- Ryan Sparks