I keep thinking that at some point they’re not going to be as good. Probably just trying to lower my unreasonable expectations of this band. Fortunately Secret Chiefs 3 are unreasonably good. Every time they pick up instruments and play.
Obviously seeing them at Cactus Club was a dream come true. Their last Milwaukee show was at Turner Hall, and while a part of me laments the fact that their stature has perhaps shrunk, Cactus has to be the ideal room for a Secret Chiefs show. Okay, for practically any show, what can I say.
Cleric came out first and proved to be a very appropriate opener (although personally I want SC3 to come back and get Painted Caves, Gnarrenschiff and Death Blues as support...). It was like taking all the heaviest elements of Mr. Bungle (the guitarist is an unabashed Spruance worshipper, there can be no doubt) and mashing them up with John Zorn's Moonchild project. It would take months of heavy listening for me to get any sort of grasp on their dizzying rhythmic permutations, but they were amazingly tight and they threw themselves into the performance. It was no mere mathematical exercise; it was complex but incredibly visceral. It occurred to me that Cleric would be a tough act to follow for most bands.
Trey came out leaning on a cane; I have no further information on why that might be, but he sat for the whole show as well. While unusual, it did not detract in the slightest. The past couple of tours have been heavy on the shredding; last night was much more of a full-band cohesion, fewer solos in favor of collaborative explorations, all within fairly tight structural frameworks, of course. I can safely say I've never seen SC3 more focused.
I'm merely conjecturing here, but I attribute the band's current direction largely to drummer Kenny Grohowski. The first time I saw him I already thought he was taking the Ishraqiyun material to new unparalleled heights, but last night...the only drumming performance in recent memory that topped it for me was Dave Lombardo with Bladerunner in Chicago this past spring, and I doubt anything could top that. It's not like he's showing off; it's as if he's got this impeccable internal groove and it allows him to flow freely in and around the beat doing whatever the energy flow in the room moves him to do, always returning home at the critical moments. When you're talking about all these unorthodox Eastern rhythms and changing time signatures it's truly a wonder to experience.
The dynamics were more intense than I've ever experienced at a Secret Chiefs show before. This may be partially attributable to the Cactus acoustics, since I could actually HEAR every instrument clear as day, but particularly "Brazen Serpent" (the regular set closer) got so quiet prior to the final build/crescendo/explosion that I almost collapsed to the ground in anticipation of the coming catharsis. Earlier in that song: the single greatest violin solo I have ever heard Timba Harris play. The interplay between it and Toby Driver's bass was so twisted at one point I thought we were about to shift into a different dimension.
Other highlights? Er, which part of this show WASN'T a highlight? would be an easier question. I'll admit I don't really go bonkers for the Le Mani medley, although I understand that it's necessary to establish the absurd stylistic scope of SC3's capabilities. Um, yeah, otherwise everything was a fucking highlight.
Okay, for me, I'll admit that for some reason I had doubted they could pull off "Potestus Clavium" live--what an idiot, it was amazing. I never dreamed I'd ever see "Lapis Baitulous"; I'm not sure they even played that live during the Book M era. They even dusted off "Assassin's Blade", THE song, the one that started it all, the one that I could never tire of. It was magnificent. "Toccata" was vicious; I think it physically lifted the entire crowd an inch or two off the floor. "Radar" was insane, all over the place. "Tistriya" was perfect, but it had its day in the sun a few years ago as the centerpiece of the set.
The crowning achievement this time around was "Saptarshi". It was nowhere near full potential last year at the UR/Traditionalists/Forms show at Schuba's, and last night it had skewed decidedly into Ishraqiyun territory, but so, so much more. It was so wild and powerful I was having trouble keeping it straight in my head that it was in fact "Saptarshi". This band...this fucking band.
But then they encored with "Horsemen Of The Invisible". Aside from "Jabalqa"/"Jabarsa" or an hour of Tessellations, this had been basically the holy grail for me. I didn't figure on Trey ever bringing this one back, but here it was in all its frantic galloping grooving glory. Ridiculous. And then the triumphant "Exodus" to close the night. What, no "Renunciation"?? No "Zulfikar"?? No "Ship Of Fools"?? Who cares, I've seen those plenty of times. For a while there it didn't seem like Trey was up for retooling any older tunes other than the same standbys tour after tour, and it didn't matter because the new stuff kept things fresh every time. Now that he's bringing back more obscure stuff PLUS the monumental evolution of the newer material...okay, my undying wish to catch the return of "Jabarsa" will keep me coming back forever even though it will probably never fucking happen, I realize this. But year after year, in the face of this incomprehensible indifference from the world at large, Secret Chiefs continue to reinvent themselves and grow stronger as a unit--shit, this lineup has been intact for like two years or more now? I can't bring myself to quite consider that SC3 could ever cease to be, but for now, all is gratitude in my world. My head will be swimming in the incomparable energy of this show for days. There's no better band in the world.