Show Review: The Alone Together Tour: Colin Stetson with Gregory Rogove and Sarah Neufeld at Hotel Utah Saloon, 5/1/2012

by Jonathan Pirro on May 2, 2012

Colin Stetson, master of the bass saxophone

Colin Stetson, master of the bass saxophone

How easily can you name all of the members, especially those who play with more unconventional instruments, within the bands you listen to? Sure, for your favorite bands, the acts that you are most passionate about and would follow to the ends of the earth, you’ve probably got their email address and a list of what kinds of underwear they have on each day of the week, but not for a good chunk of the average music lover’s library. There are dozens of bands where we rarely look past the smiling (or impassive, because that’s more photogenic these days) faces of the lead vocalist and/or guitarist, whose charm and energy all but eclipses his fellow players. It’s simple to pay little heed to the fact that a band is often made up of at least four, and quite often more, musicians, each with their own musical background and distinct talent. The musical upbringing and playing style that these musicians utilize in their solo time may often be a complete 180 from that of the more well-known band, and its different energy and performance will often bring an unexpected result. While the Montreal music collective known as Arcade Fire is already well known for its multihued musical aesthetics, their touring saxophonist Colin Stetson, who also did some time in the folk troupe Bon Iver, performs his own music as well, which is possessed of a feral intensity and staggering display of endurance rarely matched by a solo performer — particularly with an instrument as unruly as the bass saxophone.

Sarah Neufeld on violin

Sarah Neufeld on violin

A tiny and wonderfully intimate venue like the Hotel Utah provides the perfect setting for the Alone Together Tour that serves as Stetson’s performance vehicle, on which he is accompanied by fellow Arcade Fire cohort Sarah Neufeld and Lancaster indie pianist Gregory Rogove. Although the show got off to a bit of a late start, Neufeld kicked things off promptly at 8:30PM and tore through a powerful half-hour set with an enrapturing collection of solo violin pieces. As Stetson would do later on, Neufeld’s playing style was centered on quick and repetitive playing on her instrument, with some extra emphasis across the strings, giving the sound of two or three violins at once while she was the sole occupant of the stage. It was quite entrancing to hear these songs built from small, simple notes into massive walls of sound, without the means of a loop pedal or other artificial addition to the performance, and with very little movement from her hand that held the neck of the violin. In contrast, Rogove’s piano playing drew from a wide variety of styles and backgrounds, moving from slow, mournful ballads to bouncy cabaret numbers at the drop of the hat. Each piece was accompanied by a projection, some still and others moving, on the screen behind Rogove, who explained the deeper meaning behind each projection and its title, as well as the vast collection of artists that had come together to create the images and films.

Gregory Rogove on piano

Gregory Rogove on piano

The advantage to having a set of solo musicians meant that changeover time was at an absolute minimum, and thus it was barely five minutes between the exit of one musician and the entrance of the next. Therefore, it was barely past the hour of 9:30PM when Stetson took the stage and strapped the gargantuan bass saxophone to a harness on his body. The full setup he employed is a feat of fashion as well as intriguing engineering, as the bass saxophone is a monstrous instrument which he seemed to have no trouble lifting, and its own complexity paled in comparison to the mesmerizing array of sounds that he generated when he began each piece. With microphones in place both at the mouth of the horn and upon his own neck, Stetson crafted works of dizzyingly complex instrumentation, with each song coming alive with the bellowing sound of the saxophone, the loud percussive snaps and taps of its valves being opened and closed, and Stetson’s own wailing, singing voice hummed out through the microphone on his throat. To top everything off, he employed circular breathing — a technique to keep air being inhaled AND exhaled while playing wood or brass instruments — into every single song, and almost never took a breath while playing, causing the notes and passages to drift and grind on and on for several long numbers, stunning the tiny crowd of onlookers with each passing minute.

Many muscles moving

Many muscles moving

To call the music generated by Stetson’s saxophone otherworldly simply does not do it justice; there is absolutely nothing like the complex waves of sound that emanate from him and his setup while he plays. The main instrument shifts and turns, going from a soft, smoky jazz tone, to a wailing banshee, reminiscent of feedback that would scare even the wildest of noise musicians, and the transitions occur within seconds. The dynamics of each piece, both in tone and in volume, are marvelously wide, and subtle nuances can barely be detected in the quiet moments, while the loud, glaring bursts cause hairs to stand on end and eardrums to shift and strain, desiring to hear more and at the same time concerned for their safety. At the end of each song, there is a sudden and definite release of energy, and Stetson hurls off the instrument while gasping for breath, for as much as circular breathing keeps the air flowing, it is definitely a strain on one’s respiratory system — no matter how superhuman he may have seemed in the moments preceding. For one solid hour, Stetson shared pieces loud and soft, long and short, terrifying and beautiful, with the small audience before him, and then smiled, bowed, and wished everyone a good night, while those who sat slack-jawed with wonder cheered and clapped wildly at the amazing spectacle they had beheld.

Colin and the regular sax

Colin and the regular sax

Having listened to Stetson’s sophomore release New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges extensively last year, I was keen to see how the sounds could be performed live, and was absolutely floored by what I witnessed onstage. Loop pedals are eschewed by the saxophonist in favor of an astonishing feat of human endurance that keeps the notes sustained for a magnificent duration, and a full band’s worth of sound is generated from his own lips, throat and hands — he even stepped in with a regular-sized alto saxophone for a few pieces, before once again slinging the brass beast across his chest to shake the Hotel Utah’s walls like a sonic behemoth. Rarely will one see someone who plunges themselves into their performance as deeply as Colin Stetson, one of the few musicians to whom the term “one-man orchestra” can absolutely apply.

Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2012 Jonathan Pirro.

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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