In a town like Boulder, Colorado, it seems like most concerts are just an excuse to party and not remember what happened when you wake up the next morning. Of course, that’s not true for all: that would be stereotyping, and stereotyping, as we learned from our second grade teacher and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is wrong. But stereotyping or not, at some point, you’d think it would be nice to go to a concert and actually listen to the music.
Thankfully, that’s exactly what happened at El Ten Eleven’s performance on the first of the month at Boulder’s Fox Theater. Or at least, if people were partying, they kept it quiet. The small venue was not quite at capacity on that Wednesday night, but that gave the mostly young crowd a chance to spread out. While some danced right in front of the stage, others stood back and took in the show standing still, heads bobbing, pint in hand. And it seemed like that’s exactly what people who listen to El Ten Eleven want to do.
As bassist/guitarist/looper Kristian Dunn and drummer Tim Fogarty took the stage, it seemed a little anticlimactic. In an unassuming and friendly voice, Dunn greeted the crowd and strapped on his double electric bass/guitar. As Fogarty pounded his drums, Dunn began looping his instruments—back and forth between bass and guitar—until he had some solid ground to jam on. From there, it was mayhem. Dunn jumped and thrashed around stage with a smile glued to his face, layering transformative riff over transformative riff. Whether guitar or bass, it didn’t matter: Dunn played both with masterful artistry. And though there were so many things going on sonically throughout, the duo never lost focus.
Each tune is engineered with space to breathe and experiment, but there is still, always, an undeniable structure. The loops created live by Dunn combined with the rattling drums of Fogarty are what hold the tunes together. Whether its jazz, blues, jamband or even electronic, the reason for the success of any improvisation is nearly always based in the constant beat or melody underneath. You can venture far off path but unless you have some gravity to steer you back, you’ll get lost in obscurity. That’s what makes the music of El Ten Eleven successful—it is grounded, but it’s not tied down too tightly.
The duo blew through tunes with hardly a word but for the occasional, “Thank you”. As they neared the end of the set, Dunn made a point to note that all sounds being heard were being recorded on stage and played back, without the help of a metronome ticker, or any prerecorded tape. This elicited a big cheer—but it was also a point of downfall for Dunn as, perfectly on cue, he had to restart the next tune “Transitions” because, as he said, live music can be hard to pull off to perfection. Though the difficulty of “Transitions” was made obvious by their next, very successful, attempt, it occurred to me that playing music “live” has never been an excuse before now. The world of electronic music, though creative, has taken much of the spontaneity out of performing. What would Mozart have done if his first violin had missed an important transition? Or, for that matter, James Brown? Thankfully, today there are bands like El Ten Eleven who value the art of live performance and spontaneity, and for their part, do a damn good job of keeping it, and us, alive.
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