It’s a hot ticket tonight at the House of Blues in downtown Dallas. Those who played their cards right enjoy food and drinks inside the restaurant (where the catfish nuggets and sweet potato fries are a perennial fave), but out front there’s a huge number of fingers in the air for this sold-out show. One fan reports seeing kids pay $125 a piece, as well as seeing a mom drop $300 to spring for a ticket for her kid’s birthday!
Sound Tribe Sector 9 has come a long way over the past decade. But when you have a band of superb musicians that conjure a unique sound with vibes both groovy and healing, ascension in popularity is all but fated. When you’re talking about improv-oriented music, there are always variables that can affect a show though. When you see STS9 at a classic venue like The Fillmore in San Francisco or Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado, you know what you’re going to get. Certain venues just demand top-shelf performances. Any band wants to deliver every night, but when a band is on the road for a cross country tour, you never know what you’re going to get from night to night. So it was with no expectations that I entered the venue on this Saturday evening.
Dallas, after all, is a city best known for the assassination of the most popular president of modern time. Research by Texas-based investigative journalist Jim Marrs in his book Crossfire would even suggest that the Dallas police played a role by standing down on that fateful day in 1963, allowing the snipers of the military-industrial complex easy access to carry out their coup d’état against John F. Kennedy. STS9 is a band known for tapping into the mood of whatever town they’re in and it seems like a historical nod is taking place when the quintet opens with “EHM”, the epic tune from the band’s new Ad Explorata album that references author John Perkins’ modern classic Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. The book is a disturbing expose on how Uncle Sam tries to first use economic coercion when seeking his imperialist way in the world, but barring that, has no qualms with assassinating leaders of other countries that won’t play ball by privatizing their national industries.
The song conjures an appropriately spooky vibe, like that of a secret agent sneaking around a third-world country. But it slowly builds in masterful fashion, adding layer after layer, until it becomes a powerful jam with a massive groove that seems to acknowledge the courage it took Perkins to come clean in his disturbing memoir. The theme seems to continue when the band follows with “Mobsters”, seemingly acknowledging how the Mafia had a role to play in the JFK assassination as well. Coincidental set list proximity? That’s as hard to buy as the Warren Commission’s official theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was a “lone nut” who acted on his own.
But Dallas is clearly a different place in 2010, because the house is jammed and everyone is getting down. “Atlas”, another new tune, strikes a big chord that keeps the energy flowing at a high level, with some in the crowd recalling the memorable version that opened the band’s set in the rain at the Austin City Limits Festival last October. Guitarist Hunter Brown basically plays a computer here, as he did on “EHM” but in doing so, he dials in synth samples that compliment keyboardist David Phipps to create a huge cosmic sound. Drummer Zach Velmer is on as usual, while percussionist Jeffree Lerner accompanies him in ever-sublime fashion. Bassist David Murphy switches between laptop and axe, creating a deep low end with both.
“Crystal Instrument” digs deeper into the back catalogue to please older fans, followed by the rocking “Metameme” from the band’s underrated 2008 Peaceblaster album. The tune is a showcase for Velmer’s virtuoso skills, as well for Phipps’ Jedi mastery of swirling psychedelia. The band shows they’re not holding anything back when they launch into the classic “Moonsockets”, a song from their first album that was once thought of as the quintessential STS9 song. The band’s sound has evolved over the years, but the formula traces back to this amazing tune where Brown’s scintillating fretwork matches Velmer’s furious drumming, with Murphy laying down a wicked low end, Phipps going wild on keys and Lerner playing his congas like crazy. Yet it all coalesces into a collective groove that takes off like a rocket ship. It would seem this barnburner would end the set, but the band throws “The Unquestionable Supremacy of Nature” down on top. The tune is one that can have a tendency to devolve into too much techno-trickery, but this version keeps more of a focus on the groove to end the set in style.
There’s no doubt that this is going to be a good night now. Even the security seems surprisingly lax. HOBs are generally nice venues with great sound, but many of them have an unpleasantly restrictive security presence (Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Cleveland). But the vibe in Dallas seems surprisingly chill. There was no pat-down on the way in and there was little in the way of staff to be observed throughout the night. Some said the staff was at a loss with what to do with so many fans.
After experimenting with a one-set format for much of 2009, the band seems to have moved to another new format of playing a long first set, followed by a short but sweet second set. Dominic Lalli from opening act Big Gigantic joins the band on saxophone to open the second set, providing a sweet treat indeed on “Between 6th and 7th”, a jazzy number that the band had just debuted at their acoustic performance in December. Lalli stays on for a more energetic jam on “Be Nice”, which pumps the crowd higher.
STS9 push the show over the top with a monster fan-favorite trio of “Instantly> Tap In > Circus” to round out what becomes a very memorable second set. “Instantly” isn’t jammed out quite as deep as some other versions, but the ever-reliable dance party favorite gives the set another boost into the classic minor key groove of “Tap In”, one of the band’s most beloved classics. Murphy and Brown contribute some of their finest bass and guitar work here, laying off the computers for the old fan fave. When the band throws down “Circus” after that, it’s like getting a triple scoop ice cream cone with three of your favorite flavors on top of each other. Brown shines again on the delicious and triumphant melodic flavors in the song, while Velmer’s basic yet skillfully syncopated beat drives the tune into a fabulous jam to close the set.
A double encore that ends with the smoking groove of “New New 4 U U” seems almost too good to be true after the way the second set ended. Added to the repertoire in the fall of 2008, the epic tune has become an instant classic, with its catchy groove, dynamic beats and shifting changes. As the crowd filters out, there’s nothing but good vibes all around. Has Dallas become a cooler place than it’s generally known to be? Or did STS9 bring that vibe with them? Perhaps the answer is a little bit of both.
The Unquestionable Supremacy of Nature
Between 6th and 7th #
Be Nice #
New New 4 U U
# with Dominic Lalli