Secret Chiefs 3 Dazzle and Challenge at Cafe Du Nord, 5/11/13

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Kevin Brown
Secret Chiefs 3 at Cafe Du Nord. All photos courtesy of Kevin Brown
Secret Chiefs 3
Saturday, May 11, 2013
Cafe Du Nord

Better than: The day before mother's day has any right to be.

To say Secret Chiefs 3 have been lately absent from the musical landscape is to ascribe a regularity to their release and touring schedule that's never really existed in their 17 years as a band. Of course, this "band" moves exclusively to the watch of guitarist/composer/producer Trey Spruance, formerly of Mr. Bungle, whose conceptual ambition along with the high overhead of the band's lush records leads to sporadic output.

But while Secret Chiefs 3 haven't played locally in a while, they have been busy, alternately performing before enthusiastic festival crowds in Europe and the Middle East, and working on the long-awaited follow-up to their 2004 LP, Book of Horizons. So it came as a welcome surprise when, a little under two months ago, fans of their Facebook page were treated to news of recording progress and a US mini-tour to make up for the absence. As the Bay Area has been Spruance's lifelong locale, Saturday's homecoming gig at Cafe Du Nord promised to be a barnburner.

How surprising then that the show was a rather intimate affair. Here was a band that once packed Great American Music Hall to the gills on a semi-annual basis, starting promptly at 9:30 (thank god for that) in front of a barely half-filled Du Nord. This may have been due to a lack of known heavyhitters in the evening's lineup. When the band's ranks are filled with monstrous players like drummer Ches Smith and violist Eyvind Kang, it enters its own orbit.

But then Saturday's junior ringers, including guitarist Jason Schimmel and violist Timb Harris of Estradasphere (a defunct band of phenomenally talented Bungle acolytes), might well be tomorrow's heavy hitters. The group's prowess as a live band continues to increase as it moves away from reconstructing its impossibly dense and orchestral recordings (comprised of literally hundreds of instruments) and focuses on creating energy and enthusiasm through interplay and improvisation. Drummer Matt Lebofsky and bassist Toby Driver (of New York avant-garde rock ensemble Kayo Dot) handled the inscrutably complex time signatures and beats with care.

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Kevin Brown
The night's first set depended heavily on these elements coalescing, focusing exclusively on material from John Zorn's Masada songbook. Spruance has proven to be perhaps the most creative and thoughtful arranger of Zorn's compositions aside from the man himself, utilizing every trick in his arsenal to draw polychromatic honey from Zorn's compositional honeycomb. The Masada material also proved an excellent springboard for some serious shredding. Harris and Schimmel in particular contributed breathtaking solos that were at once effortless and unhinged.

The second set focused on original Secret Chiefs 3 compositions, complex lattices of inscrutable rhythms and dense pointillist harmonies. It hit harder than the Masada material, trading the first set's occasionally dithering moments for wall-to-wall intention. Focusing on selections from Horizons and several unreleased pieces, the band's material was exclusively devoted to their Ishraqiyun mode, an amalgam of Persian, Afghani, and Indian musical influences, hybridized according to Mr. Spruance's compositional wont. By taking traditional instruments and orchestrations, applying idiosyncratic tunings, loud rock drums, and synthesizers, the musicians created a sound exotic to all ears, both Eastern and Western.

Culling from the same unconventional time signatures and arrangement aesthetics as all their work, it's a wonder that this music came out so catchy, hooky, and even danceable. Yet it was, and the audience express their enthusiasm duly. By the end of the night, the three-quarters-filled room felt packed, the energy of each individual somehow expanding.

Secret Chiefs 3 are a rare outfit, and it's a small miracle that a band with such limited mainstream appeal continues to persist. It may well be the last outfit standing of the S.F. "weird rock" scene that birthed bands like Bungle, Thinking Fellers Union, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Part of this may be due to its sporadic itinerary, avoiding burnout, and having little-to-no regard for an audience's expectations (yet somehow managing to consistently meet them). It's a perfect storm of circumstances that favors this band, for its members' good and ours.

Critic's Notebook:
- Percussion legend and Secret Chiefs 3 alum William Winant was spotted in attendance.
- At 6 feet tall, your reporter was surprised to find a good half-dozen gentlemen inhibiting his view of the stage... all of them standing side-by-side.
- To the woman who called out, "Who wants the rest of my pizza?": That was inappropriate.

-- @AOKarim





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