At Callahan’s, in Detroit’s posh northern suburb of Auburn Hills, jazz fans keen on prog-rock were treated to a case of déjà vu. Stick Men—the trio consisting of Tony Levin on Chapman Stick, Pat Mastelotto on drums and Markus Reuter on touch-style guitar—had been here the previous year, playing to another sold-out crowd. Now, on Sept. 3, people started showing up hours before doors opened at 6:30 p.m. for a 7:30 show. It was the last gig of a Canada/U.S. tour in support Stick Men’s current release, Prog Noir (MoonJune), and their soon-to-be-released double-album Roppongi—Live In Tokyo 2017 (MoonJune), which also features veteran reed player Mel Collins.
Needless to say, this power trio (all three delving in and out of electronics) took an intimate club and played to it forcefully—loud and hard.
As the front line embarked, there were times when it was difficult to tell who was soloing, who was playing lines and who was offering support. Levin and Reuter were that complementary and aligned. It was fascinating to watch up-close how each string player fingered their respective instruments, their individual touches supported by an excellent sound system.
Alternating between asymmetry and melody, the grinding energy of “Hide The Trees” set the template for their brand of hard-charging fusion wrapped around various time signatures. The music featured skewed energies tending toward resolution, or a kind of permanent imbalance. With Mastelotto like a furnace behind his mates, Reuter dished soaring lines above the tumult of some uptempo hard rock. But then, suddenly, everything changed as the band slid into a slow, mixed-metered fuzzed-out coda.
What followed was a “ballad” in 7 (a favorited meter), with Levin now singing opposite Reuter’s soloing. It was a very precise number, precious yet still flowing. There was much jamming with sudden endings. Their ominous song “Plutonium” featured Reuter as the vocalist this time, the song laced with a slow, drawling beat and subterranean voices, the theme nightmarish yet somehow digestible.
Aside from their respective roles as founders of Stick Men, Levin and Mastelotto are also ongoing members of King Crimson, the game-changing English prog-rock band that’s undergone various iterations since its inception in 1968. Visiting the Crimson catalog, the trio performed “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part 2,” Levin’s fingering loose as he and Reuter fell into more conventional roles of bassist and lead guitarist, respectively.
One couldn’t help but wonder: How do you take a song that has such formalized structures and make it feel fresh and alive? The group played it pretty much straightforward with satisfying results, despite the long coda.
Stick Men have carved out their own niche, whether playing their own music or visiting the alternate universe of King Crimson. It’s damn hard to say it’s not original, if not groundbreaking.
Coda: It was Reuter’s birthday. True to form, this no-doubt typical Stick Men crowd (on their feet) made sure Markus knew he was loved, as everyone sang “Happy Birthday,” exuberantly and with gusto. DB