Last night, I had the pleasure of attending The Aristocrats’ final concert data in support of their third album, Tres Caballeros.
Dedicated readers will note that this was my second Aristocrats concert. The first occurred way back in August of 2013. By now, August 2013 seems like a world away. My daughter hadn’t been born yet; in fact, she hadn’t even been conceived. The band was touring in support of their second album. I hadn’t yet warmed up to Guthrie Govan’s playing style. In fact, here’s what I charitably wrote at the time:
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 [sic] 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.
It was interesting for me to go back and re-read that concert review, not only to remind myself of how much I’ve grown to enjoy Govan’s playing, but also to compare my early impressions of the band to what they have become over the ensuing years.
They have kept up a grueling tour schedule, not only as a band, but also in support of other musicians. Most recently, they’ve toured Europe, Asia, and Latin America. By all accounts, the tour has been a success, and I can only assume this means that the Tres Caballeros album has been a success, too.
I mention their success because my first exposure to Bryan Beller was when he was playing with an obscure Dweezil Zappa band back in the 90s, and the first time I saw him in concert was when he played a clinic at a local guitar store when I was a kid. I’ve essentially watched him go from being an obscure nobody to being a member of one of the most exciting instrumental groups on the scene, with a fan base large enough to support three studio albums, various live releases, and a worldwide touring schedule.
This is pertinent to last night’s concert. Last night, I didn’t see a band featuring the bassist of an obscure band I liked in high school. I didn’t see that band with the internet guitar guru with lots of hair. I didn’t see a struggling jazz combo trying to scrape together a living playing the darkened corners of the prog rock scene. No, I saw a fully-formed, popular, well-heeled instrumental rock outfit at the top of a game that has brought them to significant heights. The played like the world-class music act that they are today.
This wasn’t true back in 2013. Don’t get me wrong, they were still phenomenal back then. But their set reflected their comparatively lower standing. For one thing, tickets were dirt cheap and they played in a dirty bar back then; this time around, tickets were in line with what you’d expect, and the venue was wonderful. For another thing, back in 2013, the band had a certain comedic charm that permeated the entire set list, injecting each song with a zany-but-creative spirit that felt intimate and small. It was almost as if we, the audience, were included in an exciting jam session held by great musicians, which is not far off from the reality of that concert.
But today – oh, today! – the difference was palpable. The core character of the band, that humorously flavored instrumental prog-rock/jazz blend they serve to their audience, is still what it always was. But the command with which they deliver it has changed. There is confidence. There is self-awareness. The band plays like they know the audience loves them. And we do.
So what does this mean, really? Well, first of all their chops, if you can imagine it, have improved. I don’t just mean that the band seemed tight. I mean that they’re playing at a level that I’m not sure any player can compete with. Each player individually delivers such an intense onslaught of virtuosity that it can be overwhelming when they all improvise something equally godlike at exactly the same moment.
Govan seems to have lost some of the self-consciousness I felt he had the first time around, and now commands the stage like the guitar god he is, effortlessly communicating with the audience while throwing down whatever the Muse moves him to play.
Bryan Beller doesn’t hesitate to solo. You have to understand that there is an old clip floating around on YouTube somewhere in which Beller takes a “rare” bass solo during a Mike Keneally & Beer for Dolfins concert. When he’s finished, Mike Keneally steps to the microphone and promptly acknowledges that the audience has just seen something that almost never happens. The solo is good, but restrained. I wonder how the modern-day Bryan Beller would react to seeing that video today. He’s become a god of bass guitar, and his solos, along with the rest of his playing, are phenomenal, confident, brilliant, musical, and certainly unrestrained.
Drummer Marco Minnemann also seems to have undergone a remarkable change. When I saw him in 2013, he played with a certain playful zaniness. His wonderful sense of humor is still there, but his playing now seems much more forceful – perhaps because he’s playing more technically now (maybe it’s just my ears?), or perhaps because he, like Govan, has grown into his role as a member of a world-class, exciting musical ensemble on par with the best of the best. He has nothing left to convince us of anymore, in terms of proving his worth. Now he just gets to play for us, so that’s what it seems that he does, and wonderfully so.
Conspicuously missing from the concert: the pigs. They brought out their trademark squeaky toys at a couple of moments, but for the most part stuck to their instruments. The squeaky toys were a great and important component of their old set, but the band played so well on their actual instruments that I hardly missed them. This, too, is demonstrative of their overall increased degree of polish.
The band played for perhaps two and half hours, so it was a long concert full of everyone’s favorite Aristocrats songs. By the end of the night, I loved them more than I already did, which was nice. So, for me, this new, glossy, world-class version of The Aristocrats is a wonderful development, and I can’t wait to see where the band goes next. It was a great concert.