Live: Colin Stetson Blows Saxes And Minds At Glasslands

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Colin Stetson
Glasslands Gallery
Sunday, April 17

Better than: Plan A, whatever the hell that was...

Colin Stetson didn't play on every track of the Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, but it's both fortuitous and ironic that the saxist contributed to "Suburban War", the wistful song in which Win Butler tosses off the following line: "Now the music divides us into tribes/You choose your side, I'll choose my side." Fortuitous, because let's face it, how many sax expressionists get to play on the Album Of The Year, to say nothing of going on to open up the road show for the band that made it? The ironic part is perhaps more pointed, though: Stetson's career has taken off because he seems to have steadfastly not chosen any sides. It's true that at first glance the crowd coming to Williamsburg for a late Sunday triple-bill capped by Stetson's solo reed recital may seem somewhat tribal--cut from Win Butler's claque--but Stetson's music is a clear indication that he cadges inspiration from many; he's also worked with Tom Waits, TV On The Radio, Bon Iver and the African-inspired Judaica-rock combo the Sway Machinery.

Of course, as an instrumentalist who wields axes not instantly associated with pop, Stetson can't afford not to. It doesn't hurt that he also knows how to make an impression both sonically and visually. At Glasslands, Stetson steps onstage, reaches for his bass saxophone (the most hulking of the three horns lined up front) and opens his set with the same throaty bellow that introduces New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges. Yet live, there's a twist. On record, "Awake On Foreign Shores" simulates a foghorn, a lonesome sound feeling its way through mist, rising as whatever created it moves closer. In concert, however, visibly wrenched by breath, fingers and carefully placed mics from a shaft of metal that nearly matches Stetson's six-foot frame in length, the utterance is unique and powerful--even more so when the roar becomes a multiphonic shriek.

But just as quickly, Stetson seeks out a more bouncily engaging pleasure principle. He is rocking the big instrument back and forth when "Awake" gives way to the time-traveling rave of "Judges," a piece that offers the evening's first glimpse of what one might call his nightclubbing skills. Minimalist in scope but groovily syncopated in character, it features Stetson blowing a fluidly bass-y line punctuated by tongued accents, the clicking of the key-pads and guttural, climactically spaced cries. As he sustains the piece's looped new-wave quality, it gives the impression of electronica effects although there aren't any. "That was very important to me when I laid out the parameters for my solo work about five years ago--that every sound be made by just me and whatever horn I'm playing," he says later Fittingly, it is only at the finish of "Judges," when Stetson is audibly out of breath while addressing the rapturous applause and introducing the next selection, that the effort all this takes becomes palpable.

It's probably tempting to think that the saxist allows himself a bit of a breather when he switches to tenor or the even smaller alto saxophone, but the challenges actually get tougher. It probably ranks among the first times that the complete anatomies of these saxes, their very innards, are getting a hearing from his audience. "The Stars In His Head," for tenor, couples a bassline worthy of Sly Stone with emitted blips and almost traditional soul honking near in its final chapter. The alto feature, "The Righteous Wrath Of An Honorable Man," provides his fleetest playing, perhaps not surprisingly; here and later, on the slightly slower tenor workout "Clothed In The Skin Of The Dead," he's a space-age version of Brit saxist Evan Parker rather the one-man World Saxophone Quartet of "The Stars." By periodically returning to his largest horn (there were more tonguing tricks using the standup mic on "Red Horse"), Stetson's sets provide a novel flip on the concept of the lowest common denominator.

Critical bias: One-man bands are kinda anti-social, no?

Overheard: "How the hell do you keep those sneakers so white?"

Random notebook dump: The two-way bike lanes running by Glasslands are cool, but the place could use another locking station or three.

Set List:
Awake On Foreign Shores
Judges
The Stars In His Head
The Righteous Wrath Of An Honorable Man
Red Horse
Clothed In The Skin Of The Dead
To See More Light
Part Of Me Apart From You


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