2013-08-25

Concert Review: The Aristocrats

I get so emotionally involved in the music I like that sometimes I forget that my music preferences lie in a very niche market. In the modern world of algorithmically improved search results and computer-aided user recommendations, I can pull YouTube up on my browser and be inundated with music that is, although wonderful, not the kind of thing the average person listens to. I spend so much time in this world that I completely forget that most people out there are listening to... well, what, exactly? Mumford, Mumford, and Son, Barristers & Solicitors? Imagine Underpants? Alan Thicke?

So you can imagine my surprise when I headed North to Denton, Texas with the intention of watching a concert by one of the nation's best selling contemporary jazz ensembles, only to discover that the venue had room for perhaps five tables. As the crowd assembled - bedecked with Dream Theater t-shirts - I estimated perhaps two hundred fifty people were there in total.

For me, it was stunning. We're talking about three of the finest musicians on the instrumental music scene, and--

Oh, there it is again. The instrumental scene is a niche market.

I ordered drinks and waited an hour for the band to take the stage, while the room continued to fill up with Dream Theater t-shirts. Every now and then, I'd catch a snippet of conversation, and most of it was focused on the splendid guitar technique of The Aristocrats' guitarist, Guthrie Goven, who - ironically enough - rose to fame primarily as a result of his posting videos on YouTube. Indeed, these conversation snippets certainly sounded like they were being spoken by people who had been combing the corners of YouTube in search of guitarists with splendid technique. At one point, a man approached me, saying that Govan is, "arguably the best guitarist in the world," and that drummer Marco Minnemann is "arguably the best drummer in the world."

The comment stung me in surprisingly profound way. Govan's great, no doubt about it, and if there is a finer drummer than Marco Minnemann, I haven't heard one yet. But Bryan Beller played in Z, man! I was obsessing over Beller's harmonically rich bass lines when I was 16, long before any of these Dream-Theater-t-shirt-wearing guys had heard of either of the other two.

Stifling my indignation, I managed to tell my new friend, "Bryan Beller is incredible!" and thus divert attention to a man who had the decency to sign my Music For Pets CD, back in 2000.

It went on like this for an hour, when suddenly the crowd spotted the band as they entered the building and erupted in cheers. Within moments, the show had started.

The promise of guitar virtuosity was immediately fulfilled. Govan played a Charvel and a Suhr; his tone was delicious, his hair flowing in the steamy Texas heat as he shredded his way into the heart that beatin frantically against the inside of every Dream Theater t-shirt in the building. YouTube doesn't lie; the guy was phenomenal...

But by the end of the very first song, it was obvious that this show was to be the Beller/Minnemann extravaganza.

Perhaps owing to their much more extensive live experience, the Aristocrats' rhythm section was thoroughly captivating. For the full length of the concert, Minnemann's and Beller's eyes were trained on either each other, or an audience member. They sought out eye contact with everyone in the room, playing at least one note for each of us in the room, smiling as they did it, nodding in tribute to each fan once they had played it, then quickly moving on to the next fan.

This kind of dedication to the fan base, to the performance, to the music, is something one only really sees in the very finest musicians. In the context of that kind of performance, the music becomes more than just the music; it takes on a life of its own, it becomes an intimate, shared experience unique to you, the artists, and the few other lucky people in the room.

If you've heard an Aristocrats album, or seen a live performance on YouTube, you know to expect the absolute pinnacle of musical virtuosity. Indeed, that virtuosity was very much on display last Friday night. But what you've surely missed from those albums and videos is the life their music takes on when they're performing. Have you ever seen a musical trio play improvised squeaky-toy solos? Have you ever seen jazz/fusion erupt into improvised cell-phone-app music? I hadn't either... until Friday.

The concert ended far too soon, but the band had played virtually every song in their repertoire. There was nothing left to do but play a grand finale, and call it a night. When it finally ended, my heart was racing (I wasn't even wearing a Dream Theater t-shirt), and my mind was fully of possibilities.

The Aristocrats is a band full of wonderful musicians who play amazing music simply because it's possible. There is no "scene" to which they belong, and to which they must appeal. There is no top-ten hit to which they must aspire. It's music meant for exploring possibilities. Last Friday, in Denton, Texas, that is precisely what happened, to the delight of a small group of passionate fans who hardly knew what hit them.