Undertow. That force pulling you out of your waking reality and delivering you to your dreamscape. Your dreamscape. Your inner architecture.
Your waking self is most familiar with this space when the undertow fails. When human voices wake us and – as a poet who knew a thing or two about formative cadences put it – we drown. (More on that in a moment.…) Or, less poetically, when we are jolted awake, and in that moment remember fragments of our dreamscape: a place so natural when we’re living in it; so other-worldly when we trying to reconstruct it from those recollected fragments.
Did you know that our dreamscapes often have soundtracks? Think of them as internal acoustic architecture.
I hadn’t fully realized this until I heard Tony Levin and his band, Stick Men, play.
The venue itself provided the first glimmer of this insight. Jammin’ Java, in Vienna, VA, is located in a strip mall. A strip mall? (On the plus-side, it means plenty of good parking.) Walk inside and it’s a coffee/bar. The “bar” half of this equation being the liquor-serving kind, it offers the first hint that your reality is shifting. Once you’re allowed behind the curtain that hangs adjacent to the bar, you enter a decent-sized room, its potentially-sterile dimensions camouflaged by a cozy arrangement of tables and a dimness softened by candles and the purple-and-aqua lights behind the (as we now see) extending bar. An odd graphic from event-supporting D.C. prog-rock collective S.O.A.R. (Society of Art Rock) is projected at the back of the stage, further enhancing the event’s sur-reality. At the front of the stage, wonderful music-geek fans – our own photographer included – have gathered to parse out the combination of pedals that will allow the night’s featured artist to create his trademark sound. In fact, the assembled group discusses Levin’s gear in hushed tones that reflect a palpable reverence. The stage becomes an altar. Then Levin, with fellow “Stick Men” (who neither play the Chapman stick at this performance nor – also like Levin – have the physiognomy of stick-men) Markus Reuter and Pat Mastelotto, takes the stage.
Tony Levin isn’t draped in priestly robes, of course. He’s wearing a King Crimson t-shirt from the band’s 1973 release (my similarly-wonderfully-geeky friend Kel immediately informs me), Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. Levin wasn’t yet in KC back in ’73. His first appearance came with 1981’s Discipline. But, as the night’s relatively brief but powerfully concentrated show would reveal, he has embraced the whole of KC’s discography. You can see this for yourself in the photo of the band’s set list – signed for Kel by Levin himself, with the side-note, “You stole this!” There are also songs by Stick Man/Men, including their exquisite interpretation of four movements from Stravinsky’s “Firebird” and a piece from Robert Fripp’s seminal Exposure album. Occasionally during the night’s performance, Levin adds vocals to the instrumental mix – producing a slightly disconcerting, “human-voices-wake-us” effect.
The between-song banter is casual, friendly, and alternately amusing and informative. We learn that Reuter co-designed the Touch Guitar he is playing. And that Mastelotto, on drums, percussion, and assorted electronic creations, is a fellow Crimson alum. (If only we had more time, we would expand upon the talents of these two musicians, mentioning things like the impression Reuter conveys that he emerged from the womb playing that guitar – but we’re already pushing the limits of blog-space propriety.) We learn that there will be a tour this summer of the “Crimson ProjeKCt,” featuring our Stick Men and Adrian Belew. That the next Stick Men album probably won’t be out until fall, after all – but, on a recent Friday, the band decided to “just do a quick album” and – voila – the “improv album” was born. (It’s not yet available – but they did include one of its songs, Open Pt. 3, in the set.) Rushed to wrap up the evening’s show because the club’s house band was set to start at 9:00 (at least that’s what they told us – though there appeared to be extenuating circumstances that included an overnight drive to their next venue – in Rochester, NY), they perform their encore without first leaving the stage. The three Stick Men then take center stage for a collective bow; and Levin continues his tradition of taking pictures of the audience. (Eventually, the photos will be posted on his website.) Finally, after the performance – and before returning to the stage to pack up his own equipment – Levin chats with fans and signs autographs for a good half-hour. Few could ask for more from a performer. Yes, that t-shirt was still on his back. But he autographed the pilfered set-list with good humor.
Somewhere in the midst of the band’s transfixing performance, I thought of my personal introduction to Levin’s unique way of transforming music. It was Peter Gabriel’s 1980 “Melt”/”Melting Face”/”3” album. Others in the audience may have come to Levin through his work with John Lennon … Pink Floyd … Alice Cooper … Paul Simon … Joan Armatrading … Chuck Mangione … Cher(!) … T-Bone Burnett … David Bowie … Yes…. (Indeed, particularly devoted fans might find days of amusement by visiting the “discography” link on Levin’s website and playing “6 Degrees of Musical Separation.”) To call his musical life’s-work “eclectic” is an understatement. But a current runs through the songs Tony Levin has graced over the decades. His work with King Crimson and Stick Men reveals the essence of that current. It is elemental, familiar – but at the same time intangible. I could swear he has tapped into the acoustic architecture that unites our individual dreamscapes. And I would swear it, if only I could remember it better when I’m awake.
Fortunately, Levin generates his own undertow – so, with Friday’s performance, I know this insight has substance.
And a vaguely crimson hue.