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STS9

(26 Aug 2011: Stubbs BBQ — Austin, TX)

The state of Texas has been suffering under a drought of historic proportions here in the foul summer season of 2011, with most Austinites unable to recall when the last day was where the mercury didn’t reach triple digits. By any sane practical measure, one could argue that this pair of shows by STS9 should have been moved to the new indoor ACL Live venue. It’s a little bigger than Stubbs and lacks the same outdoorsy character, but then the band and their fans wouldn’t have to deal with the scorching heat. It worked out nicely there for Widespread Panic in June.


But STS9 has established a deep tradition of playing supremely triumphant shows at Stubbs over the past four years, and the venue has clearly become a favorite tour stop. The place just has a great vibe—the sound is stellar, there’s been a ton of classic shows there and the venue is large enough to hold 2,000 people but still small enough to feel intimate. There’s few venues of comparable size and quality in the nation, so playing elsewhere in Austin just wouldn’t be the same. The instrumental jamtronica quintet first played Stubbs in 2007, but it was the Halloween 2008 show that seems to have been the pivotal moment.


All Hallows Eve fell on a Friday night that year, optimizing the costumed fun that Austin is well known for annually. The show drew one of the most festive crowds of all time and the band delivered a memorable barn-burner in return. At the end, bassist David Murphy was moved to comment on just what a great crowd it was, even suggesting that he felt the band had found a new regular Halloween town. STS9 wound up returning to Austin in early October for the Austin City Limits Festival the next year (including a late show at Stubbs), but came back in 2010 to make good on Murphy’s suggestion with a stellar pair of Halloween weekend shows on October 29-30 (choosing the Friday and Saturday so that they could play their full show and avoid the venue’s earlier Sunday curfew). The costumed mayhem that Saturday night may even have surpassed that of 2008.


Now after touring only sporadically this summer with mainly festival dates, the band was back for yet another two-night stand at the venerable barbecue joint. The sweltering heat was definitely an obstacle, with the oppressively high temperature nearing a ridiculous 110 degrees each day. But serious STS9 fans have come to know that the band’s shows at Stubbs are not to be missed, and so they came driving in to Austin from all over the region again just as they did last October.


Sometimes you can just tell from the start when a band is ready to crush it all night, and so it was at the beginning of Friday night’s show when STS9 segued tightly from an opening sample into “What is Love?”. A tangible energy was noticeable, with Murphy and Jedi drummer Zach Velmer instantly locking into a tight groove that the whole band coalesced around. Then when the band threw down “Instantly” next—one of their most dependable crowd pleasers usually featured much later in a show—it was apparent that they were dedicated to making this a big night. “Move My Peeps” and “Beyond Right Now” kept the groovy energy building, until it surged still higher with with an epic rendition of “Hidden Hand Hidden Fist” that had the crowd cutting loose like the show was deep into the second set.


Friday’s second set kept building on the high level established in the first, with a rocking “New New 4 U U” set opener and a collective group energy that found the quintet totally dialed in. There’s just something about the chemistry that these guys have established, with the collective mind always superseding the individual players. The polyrhythmic percussion between Velmer and percussionist Jeffree Lerner is a factor, as is the way that Murphy, keyboard wizard David Phipps and guitarist Hunter Brown all take time playing synths and seem to operate with a group mind. When the quintet is really locked in, the energy flows through the crowd and an ecstatic feedback loop is activated.


The brand new “20-12” was a major highlight, with an uplifting melodic sound that recalls the band’s classic “Circus” to some degree, but with a faster tempo and more prominent contribution from Phipps on the keys. The majestic groove of this jam showed the band at the peak of their power, and it’s a great vibe to project onto the enigmatic year of 2012 that’s just around the bend. STS9 has downplayed their longstanding interest in the Mayan calendar somewhat in recent years, preferring to let the music do the talking. But this great new tune seems to be a sign that they’re still on a mission to help raise the planetary vibration through music, so as to assist the ascension of society that so many in the metaphysical community are hoping for.


Then just when you thought the energy couldn’t feel any better, the band threw down their classic, yet now all too rare, “Breathe In”, which features one of their most transcendent jams. An epic version of “EHM” followed, with the musical and crowd energy level going off the charts. It was one of those rare magical nights where each song seemed to kick the energy level up yet another notch. This seemed reflected in the encore when the band threw down a revamped version of their prototype tune “Moonsocket”, much to the delight of the assembled. The band had been on such fire that fans were almost able to stop noticing the stifling temperature.


The Saturday night show had a bit of a different feel, with the energy flowing up and down more, as opposed to being a straight-up barn-burner. But STS9 are never trying to play the same show two nights in a row, a large part of why it’s so much fun to see them on a two-night run. You know they won’t repeat a song and that they’re always looking to do something a bit different, which keeps the experience fresh. Saturday’s show featured some spacier and more experimental sections, yet also still contained plenty of peak moments that had fans debating which night was better with little consensus on the matter.


“Shock Doctrine” and “The Unquestionable Supremacy of Nature” opened the show with a strong energy recalling the previous night, while “Abcees” and the new “Golden Gate” helped cool fans down with more ambient grooves. This was a needed service with the temperature being even a couple degrees hotter than the previous night. The title track of the band’s new When the Dust Settles EP closed the set in dynamic fashion with a trippy oscillating synth line, a big beat and strong interplay between the band’s five parts.


The second set kicked off with a bang as the band jammed on Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”, which received a raucous reception. This led to an energetic workout on “Scheme”, another strong track from the new EP that had the whole crowd getting down. A sequence of “Rent>Grow, One a Day, Aimlessly” found the band jamming out in what seemed almost effortless fashion. But it was the end of the show that really put an exclamation point on this strong run.


A huge cathartic cheer came from the crowd when the first harmonic notes of “Baraka” oozed from bassist David Murphy’s axe. An STS9 fan favorite since the beginning, the blissful tune never fails to be received as anything but a rare and special treat. The tune highlights the band’s dynamic chemistry, with the instruments all blending together into a seamless and gorgeously subtle sound. Then it builds into a peak climax around Brown’s scintillating fretwork that is a highlight of any show in which its played. It was definitely a special way to end the set. There wasn’t going to be any quickie encore after this. The quintet returned and upped the ante further still with the beloved “Circus”, a most unexpected treat in the encore slot. The band and crowd were united on cloud nine once again with this stellar jam that took the collective energy back to the peak. It was like an extended vibrational healing for anything that might ail the soul.


Then as if that weren’t enough, they threw down another smoking jam on top with “Surreality>EB”, a bluesier yet still smoldering jam that seemed to act as a bridge from the ecstatic peaks of “Baraka” and “Circus” to a more uncertain yet still groovy future. No one really knows what 2012 and beyond will hold, but with tone scientists like STS9, the future promises to be filled with fat grooves and harmonious vibes.


* * *


Check out some vids from the shows here.

Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.


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