Sunday, 20 September 2009

NOMO at the El Mocambo, September 18, 2009

Overall, a very good show.

Maybe you've figured this out already, but it only really hit me at this NOMO show that music is invisible, and this fact has implications I can't even imagine. That was actually my first thought when these guys started playing, and I couldn't stop thinking it for the rest of the show.

It is the main difference—well, it's one way of describing the main difference between seeing a band perform music live and listening to a recording of it, regardless of the quality of the recording; because while music itself—the sounds that comprise it—is invisible, and involves mostly hearing, performance is highly sensual, involving each of the major senses. Listening to music on its own—at home, in headphones, at a bar, even at a dance club—lacks so much sensory information about the music that it's almost unfair to place it in the same category as live music.

They must put something in those sound waves, because at a good live show, they penetrate mind, body, and soul; and each sense enhances the others, as the vision of the artist creates a wonderful—in fact, necessary—connection with the sounds they make, and those waves press into your body. Volume helps in many cases; but at any volume the feeling of the music from watching an artist live is usually incomparable to listening to a recording.

I might make an exception for dance clubs, because in those cases, the audience is actually participating in a performance of sorts, and one's senses are reasonably engaged. But in most club situations, volume acts as the major sensory stimulator, almost artificially compelling the body to move, and pushing the non-aural senses to the edges. Even hearing can play a minor role at a dance club, since it's the rhythm that moves the body, and the rhythm that the body feels the most—but a song's rhythm is commonly interchangeable, rarely unique to a particular song. In other words, at a dance party, the songs are less important than the rhythm that animates them. That doesn't mean that individual songs are unimportant, but there's a reason that we prefer to hear some songs at home and others at the club.

I don't mean to denigrate the experience and joy of listening to music recordings. The difference is like that between watching a play and reading a book: one is immediate, the other reflective. With live music and performances, the audience has to remain with the performer, and doesn't have a lot of time to think beyond what is contained in the script or song; with recordings and books, the audience can take its time and look out for things that are less obvious in the work.

Which, I suppose, brings me to the show on Friday. It starts with a happy combination of events that don't quite add up to coincidence.

I had never heard of NOMO before last week. Then my friend Elly started mentioning that some friends of hers from Chicago were coming to Toronto to play a show. That's the first event. (They're actually half from Chicago and half from Ann Arbor.) In fact, the band were to stay at Elly's and Danijela's studio, which has lots of room, but very few beds (that's facetious—it has no beds).

So, when I saw Elly's post about the show on Facebook, I decided to have a listen some NOMO. Usually I don't listen to music while I work, because it prevents me from focussing, but sometimes I can, and recently I have done, mostly because I've discovered Hype Machine (that's the second event), which is a Web 2.0 service that scours music blogs across the internet and adds any songs it finds to its database, aggregating in a user-friendly way for easy finding and listening; but also because I've been working on a project that requires a different kind of focus. It helps if I listen to instrumental music—it's mainly the singing that distracts me.

I liked what I heard. (That's the third event.)

Now, if you read my show reviews, you'll know that I hardly ever see live music, and that's sad because I adore the experience. Not only that, but Danijela and I have been going through a period of almost-unprecedented busyness—improving the house projects, work projects, various trips. (Sorry neglected friends! I'll be free again soon from the shackles of adult responsibility.) So we're like tired, and often cranky, old people right now. But I hate to turn down the opportunity to see a potentially good show (and for free—thanks Elly!). In this case, I had an open evening (recent Fridays I've been busy DJing at The Painted Lady) and some remaining energy from the week and day. Unfortunately, Danijela didn't have the same energy.

Which, I guess really brings me to the show. All of the above is actually relevant to what I experienced at the El Mo. If you listen to some of NOMO's music, I think you'll find it pretty funky in a jazzy and white sort of way. I would say they are obviously fans of Gil Scott-Heron and his style of acid jazz, but initially I heard a lot of Steely Dan (especially from the Rhodes keyboard and sometimes in the guitar) in the mix. The recordings also made me think of experimental artists like Can and !!!, who are often funky, but frequently too avant-garde to be dancefloor funky. Regardless, I liked the songs and definitely heard a lot of potential; and when I saw the seven band members walk on stage, I was ready to be impressed. They surpassed my expectations.

It was immediately clear that NOMO is made up of very competent musicians—this had better be the case in a group with three horn players (trumpet, tenor and baritone sax) and two drummers. They're tight and at the same time they rely pretty heavily on (presumably-)improvised horn solos, which is always a pleasure to hear. I couldn't help thinking of Sharon Jones's backing band, The Dap Kings, or any of the several revival jazz bands I've seen.

But: NOMO are thoroughly modern. Despite wearing their influences on their sleeves, and keeping within the realm of traditional jazz instruments (drums, bass, guitar, horns, keys, &c.), there is little sign of retrospection in their music. Reverence, yes—at one point I was wishing they would play John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme"—but no nostalgia. Maybe it helps that many of their songs feature two drummers and no guitar, and others feature guitar in a purely rhythmic mode, so that the songs remain unique, despite frequent similarities, which I think are inevitable in instrumental music.

More: early in the show—after three or four songs—I started to think that NOMO's songs followed a relatively simple formula: start out with a funky synchronized groove, introducing the melodic theme with the horns, giving way to solos and duos—a little bit chaotic, the unity falling apart—then a rhythmic breakdown followed by a return to unity, with the horns together reintroducing the theme or some modification—rise to crescendo and stop. (In this structural sense, they actually reminded me of Godspeed You Black Emperor!, whose entire catalogue was defined by this formula (with strings in place of horns, and no funk). Well, that's an exaggeration; that was my experience of that band, and it bored me.)

In one sense, this is simply a standard song structure that countless artists use to this day—sort of an instrumental version of the "verse-chorus-verse" form—the really important part is how the band uses the structure. In any case, it quickly turned out otherwise, as NOMO used enough variations on the form to keep their songs from becoming repetitive.

And, for me, watching talented and skillful musicians helps keep a performance interesting. Part of the visual aspect of music is seeing the players play their instruments—especially nice when there are so many players to look at—and communicate with each other, which these guys did a lot.

Finally, at the end of an hour-plus show, each of the band members, beginning with the horn players walked off the side of the stage and into the crowd, playing all the while (the drummers carried their toms, the bassist grabbed some bells). The crowd surrounded them, clapping and dancing along to the music—much reduced in volume, but heightened in presence.

In short—if it's fair for me to say that at this point—NOMO provide a serious sensory experience, better live than on record; but the recordings that I've heard so far are impressive, and totally worth hearing. I bought their new album, Invisible Cities, and I'm sure I'll be introducing a few tracks from it at The Painted Lady in the near future.

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