The Aristocrats
Anfiteatro Hotel Fontane Bianche, Cassibile (SR), Italy
Oct. 14, 2012

About one month ago, I happened to find the itinerary of The Aristocrats' imminent European tour waiting for me in my e-mail inbox. I had a look, just in case, 'cause one never knows, though I have to admit that I was not very optimistic 'bout my chances of having the group play a date so near to me that I could make it, but - guess what? - such a date existed. So I had a look on the Web, made a couple of calls, sent a few e-mails, bought my ticket, done. Hooray! (Well, here I have to admit I embellished my tale a tiny bit, taking out a few minor glitches, but life is not really intended to be all fun and games...)

My puzzlement that a trio such as The Aristocrats could really play at the Anfiteatro dell'Hotel Fontane Bianche in sunny Cassibile (SR) vanished as soon as I could place the event inside the appropriate framework: the concert's promoter was, in fact, the local branch of a national music school, the event going hand-in-hand with an afternoon "clinic" to be held by Guthrie Govan, the group's guitarist.

In a way, I'm sorry I didn't attend the "clinic". Impeccably professional (when I met him at the hotel reception, the group's bass player, Bryan Beller, told me that the night before they had come back to their hotel very late, this being due to their concert in Sardinia running late, and so they were all  pretty tired), Govan met the pupils on time, and he immediately started telling a series of anecdotes accompanied by musical fragments played on guitar. But while I was having fun listening to a few arpeggios from songs featured on Abbey Road (talking 'bout The Beatles' album, of course) it suddenly dawned on me that I had not paid for the "clinic", so I left the hotel lobby, where I sat, and had the chance to listen to it all.

While I was busy doing nothing in the hotel's garden, I thought about how the spreading of the "American model" - paying money in order to acquire a specific kind of "abilities" (something that detractors of this model sometimes refer to as "acquiring specific motional skills") - has worked in favour of the birth of a "parallel world" where the laws of consumption as they are currently represented in The Top Forty appear to be suspended. Sure, other problems have appeared to replace those that prevailed before, with the musical instrument now seen as a mere "gym" tool (which in a way makes a lot of sense, the "quantitative" dimension being a lot easier to measure and grade than an aleatoric definition such as "artistic creativity"), and the artist's remuneration scheme based on the endorsement model - something that in order to work properly needs a substantial following, which is likely to entail the stressing of the above-mentioned "gym" side, most students being by definition "immature".

(Those who'd like to read more about some interesting "side effects" of this scheme are invited to read the tale told by famed drummer Bill Bruford in his interesting autobiography, not surprisingly titled Bill Bruford: The Autobiography, published in 2009 by Jawbone Press.)

It's a world I know nothing about, as it's clearly showed by the circumstance that, before listening to the album by The Aristocrats I had never even heard of Guthrie Govan, my familiarity with the work of the group's drummer, Marco Minnemann, being confined to his collaboration with Mike Keneally. Funny thing, the opposite was true for people I talked to at the concert, and also for some friends who like "fusion" music who I talked to on the phone, a few days after I bought my concert ticket.

Talking about what kind of music The Aristocrats really play can have interesting results. I'd call it "fusion" - which is quite surprising for me, since I usually really dislike "fusion", most specimens sounding to me quite repulsive. (I still remember - having attended a whole series of "fusion" concerts, about fifteen years ago - the precise moment I said "never again!".) But things change. In my opinion, the music played by The Aristocrats could be filed under "rock", but I'm quite sure a fan of "today's rock" would argue against this, since there are too many items that were once part of rock music, or at least of some of its streams - such as odd time signatures, long solos, type of intervals, prodigious playing skills - which have not been part of rock for a long time. The paradoxical consequence is that The Aristocrats, a group whose music shows abundant traces of both "progressive" and "metal" (and whose harmonic language sounds more "jazz" than "classical" to me), are nowadays filed under "fusion".

The above-mentioned Anfiteatro is a low-ceiling room placed in the hotel basement that sits about four hundred. To me, on this night, it appeared to be about half-full. The stage is high enough to let one see the players clearly (but from where I sat I couldn't see their feet). As it was to be expected - the majority of those who attended the afternoon "clinic" also attending the concert - for the most part people were quite young, with just a few in their late-twenties; there were also a couple of parents with their sons.

In my review of the group's music on the album, I talked about "an 'idealized version' of a concert", something which was confirmed to me by the concert itself. What I'd like to stress is the "modern" side of the trio's music as performed live, the music possessing all the sheen of the recording studio, with the different sections of the compositions - and they're quite diverse - "dressed" by very different sounds and performing techniques. This multi-coloured side of the group's compositions finds its acoustic counterpart in those devices that "acoustic science", though commerce, has put at our disposal, this being the element that most separates this kind of modern "fusion" (?) from the types that came before, where electric (many times semi-acoustic) guitars, well-mannered amplifiers, and a few pedals added just a bit of colour to those "variations on a theme" based on stock "jazz" scales.

To me, guitarist Guthrie Govan is the main ingredient for the success of the music of the trio. Minnemann and Beller, it goes without saying, are a very versatile rhythm section (the latter being also a fine writer), and those "parallel" adventures cultivated by Beller add a lot when it comes to making some moments more interesting than I expected. But it's Govan's versatility, starting with his touch, that makes this music - both in concert and on the album - sound so polychromatic, successfully avoiding the ennui that for a long time I regarded as being an unavoidable part of the "genre".

Sure, once in a while I still caught myself having a look at my watch, and at times the "high energy" approach of the music of the group seemed to turn into a cage, making a track like Beller's Flatlands - which would be perfect to run with a movie's end credits - sound like "a courageous experiment". It has also to be said that what the audience appeared to like the most were the "showy" solos (a "positive compensation" scheme which for a musician is not exactly devoid of risks), starting with the drum solo, where Minnemann's "realistic" behaviour reminded me of Jon Hiseman's, in his Tempest period. Sure, this is nothing new - remember those "showbiz" violin solos Ray Shulman played in concert? - but sometimes I got the impression that Minnemann is already too well-versed in those "enthusiasm-building techniques", as it was clearly showed by some cheap, tacky jokes he made (which, it has to be said, a large part of the audience greeted with laughter). There was nothing to surpass the highly celebrated "foglia di fica" by Peter Gabriel in the course of the concert played by Genesis in Rome when promoting their album Selling England By The Pound, but I believe that it's not really necessary to share Robert Fripp's austere look on life in order to say that some questionable jokes can demean not just the musician who's telling the jokes, but also the music that's played.

I was ready to bet on the concert starting the same way as the album, Minnemann's Boing!... I'm In The Back being a vivacious, communicative number. Instead, the group started with Govan's Bad Asteroid, here performed with all those various timbres and genres, as on the album. Then the group played a fine rendition of Beller's Greasy Wheel, from his solo albums Thanks In Advance and Wednesday Night Live. Then it was time for Boing!... I'm In The Back, which they played con brio, with (what to me sounded like) more than a few "traces of Beck" on Govan's fingerboard. Then it was time for the elegant tango titled Furtive Jack.

I think that at some point in the concert the group played Get It Like That - the notes I took under the room's lights were not very clear - still sounding very much influenced by Narada Michael Walden, and there was a long drum solo.

Beller announced a change of pace after the mayhem, the trio  giving a good rendition of Flatlands. Musically inconsistent just like on the album, Minnemann's Blues Fuckers is maybe the number whose performance the audience greeted with the greatest amount of applause. There was also a fine performance of I Want A Parrot by Govan, featuring, as usual, a great variety of styles and a great instrumental performance by Beller, whose See You Next Tuesday the group then played, with more verve than on the album.

In closing, the group performed "Hotel Kandisky" (this being the wrong title, it's a piece by Minnemann that I don't know), "Erotic Planet" by Govan (ditto), and Beller's Sweaty Knockers, which was practically perfect.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2012 | Oct. 18, 2012