Colin Stetson @ Bar Le Ritz – 12th December 2018

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Colin Stetson montreal

Colin Stetson is one of those artists who can truly be said, without any pretence or hyperbole, to exist in his own category. Not only that, but at the risk of using a second trope in describing live music, his recordings don’t do full justice to the experience of seeing him in person, to the extent that when I first discovered him and felt compelled to share it, I sent an accompanying youtube video along with every recommendation to a friend. In addition to being able to play almost every woodwind instrument, including ones you’ve probably never even heard of, the way each of his compositions is built on his extensively trained multiphonic technique and circular breathing makes the bar for anyone else to even come close to reproducing it astronomically high. Even his figure strikes an impression, built up by the physical demands to even be able to play one of his compositions, let alone perform them in series at a concert. of A Colin Stetson show is not only an immersive and unbelievable performance but an exploration of the relationship between music and man, from the way we hear sound to human physiology’s potential for musical production and the emotion all of it can create.

Fellow Montreal-based experimental musician Justin Wright was recruited as an opener. His cello and an accompanist’s violin looked especially charming framed by various modern accoutrements, including a full panel of pedals at Wright’s feet, iPads instead of sheet music, and a table of various electronics from which someone supplemented the strings with synths, effects, and backing tracks. Despite the bridge of his cello reportedly popping off in transportation earlier, the tone and melodies of the strings blended beautifully with the atmospheric electronics, creating a vibe that would complement the following performance beautifully. In particular, the sawing arpeggios in parts of “Mercury Horizon,” off an EP released last year, mirrored the blistering arpeggios Stetson employs to coax overtones out of fundamental frequencies in his own playing.

There was no stalling in the tight turnaround between Wright’s trio expeditiously packing up their gear and Stetson’s appearance. Even with three horns and a network of capillaries feeding mics attached to not only the mouths of their bells, but at various points on each instrument, Stetson checked the levels for each with practised efficiency. In addition to the contact mics decorating the bodies of the instruments, the collared pickup he wears around his throat to amplify the vibrations of vocalizations he makes while playing got its own check. As soon as this was done, he revved up the machine of his circular breathing with a few gulps of air and launched into “Spindrift.” Cascading arpeggios reverberated in the sold-out space with a resonance that defied his tenor saxophone’s relatively small size. The amplified thump of keys rhythmically hitting the body of the instrument provided a heartbeat as the song was brought to life. Over this rippling foundation, the “singing” from the throat contact mic drifted in as if coming from a distance, giving the piece melodic shape and otherworldly feel.

Anticipating the perspiration-inducing task of playing his signature bass saxophone, Stetson asked if there were any towels available (“not sure, we’ll check”) before diving into “Judges,” a throwback from the second instalment of his three-part New History Warfare series of albums. Members of the crowd whooped as they saw him reach for the brass behemoth, clipping it into an industrial-looking harness to help manage a bulk that extends from above the head to the thigh. As he played, arpeggios took on a different tempo and pattern than before, but immediately noticeable was the visceral bass of the walloping keys echoing around the sax’s cavernous insides. Similar ethereal vocal intonations as before were now interspersed with more impassioned cries that sizzled with natural distortion created by the same acoustic wizardry between instrument and manipulation of embouchure and throat that lets Stetson “play” multiple notes at once. Swaying to the pulse of the song, he didn’t seem to take notice as the sax knocked into a mic stand at one point. Absorbed by the monumental task of moving air through and fingers over a 5-foot instrument for over 6 minutes continuously, you can’t blame him.

Towels passed up from the back through the crowd were showered onto the stage after Stetson asked for them once again, this time the sweat beginning to form on his brow a clear indication of the need. The sax got swapped out for another unconventional instrument, this time a contrabass clarinet (yes, that’s a thing). A sustained low note rattled the bones of the audience before breaking into the galloping beat of “Between Water and Wind.” The piece, from the same 2017 album All This I Do For Glory that contributed most to the setlist, hints more clearly at the IDM influences Stetson was inspired by when working on the album. Accordingly, many closed eyes and bobbing heads could be seen in the crowd. The acoustic byproducts of his circular breathing, the air rushing through his nose while his cheeks pushed out previous stores, became a musical percussive element in itself.

Taking a well-deserved break, Stetson expressed his gratitude at being back home after having toured Europe for some time, even sharing how his first ever show in Montreal, a release party for one of his early albums, had taken place in the very same venue. Continuing the sentimental streak, he compared the feeling behind “In the Clinches” to a study a friend had told him about where monkeys in solitude showed recovery from even a glimpse of a loved one. Even without the anecdote, as throbbing ostinatos were punctuated by the most pronounced clacking of keys and pained howling yet, the emotional turmoil was clear. The volume of the bass sax had reached such a level at this point it was no longer clear if the distortion was coming from what Stetson was deliberately producing or the technical limitations of Le Ritz’s sound system. After a final breather, two new songs were performed as a closing suite, with rapid intervallic leaps blending into calmer textures and poignant melody.

Spend enough time listening to any artist’s music, immersing yourself in their story, process, influences, and intention, and their idiosyncrasies become so apparent that it can be easy to toss around the idea that so-and-so “resits categorization.” The expression can often be true in some way, after all, in an art form like music, as saturated in its deep history as it is in the often unforgiving industry that has grown around it, originality is ultimately necessary to succeed. As pop culture and mainstream music increasingly equate mass appeal and celebrity to artistic merit over the expectation of genuine creative inspiration, it is refreshing to see musicians like Stetson that can capture an audience solely through talent without the fireworks of a Twitter feud to bolster their popularity. It’s a sentiment that is shared by longtime collaborator Justin Vernon, who employs him behind the scenes on Bon Iver and has contributed vocals to Stetson’s own material, as well as LCD Soundsystem, Animal Collective, TV On the Radio, and a host of fellow Canadians like Timber Timbre, BadBadNotGood, Arcade Fire, Patrick Watson, and Feist. As much as a part of us delights to hear who might be on the receiving end of Cardi B’s lobbed shoe, there is clearly another part that seeks the spectacle of a man who has to practically wrestle his instrument into submission to perform. It’s inherently difficult to describe one of his shows without considerable reference to the technique required and details of how he can do so much without any looping or electronic effects. However, at some point, all the jargon melts away and man merges with instrument, the metal frame of his harness like an exoskeleton and horn like an extra limb. All you’re left with is the raw intensity and emotion of the performance created by this unique bond, and that more than anything is what will stay with you.

Between Water and Wind
In the Clinches
The Love it Took to Leave You
Strike Your Forge and Grin

Review – Dylan Lai

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