Cinco de Mayo in Columbus, Ohio has a nice little ring to it. Add Sound Tribe Sector 9 at the Newport Music Hall—a classic Midwest venue located on the aptly named High Street—and you’re looking at a night to remember.
Friday nights on High Street, the main action strip at Ohio State University, are always festive, and there was an extra energy in the air on this particular evening. The bars were packed with basketball fans hoping to see the Cleveland Cavaliers clinch their first round NBA playoff series by defeating the Washington Wizards.
Ohioans are known for taking both sports and music very seriously. Some of the Sound Tribe fans who had journeyed down from Northeast Ohio faced the ultimate dilemma around 10:30pm—just about the time STS9 was scheduled to hit the Newport stage for their first set—when the Wizards’ Gilbert Arenas hit a miraculous 30-foot shot at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime. STS9 visits the Midwest all too rarely, but, on the other hand, superstar Lebron James and the Cavaliers were trying to win their first playoff series in 13 years. Needless to say, some of the STS9 fans from the Cleveland area missed the band’s first set.
But then, STS9 are considered one of the great jam bands of Planet Earth for a reason, and even if you’re late, you know there’s a great second set waiting in the wings. Whoah, back up a minute! It’s a slight injustice to say that STS9 are just a jam band. They’ve developed a unique sound and vibe that blends elements of electronica and trance with rock, space funk, and jazzy improvisation.
And there’s more to it than that. The band once posted a statement on their website that sums up their creed—“Sound Tribe Sector 9 is a family of musicians, artists, designers, engineers, and visionaries. We hold a collective attitude of cooperation and service. Cooperation amongst each other, service to Mother Earth. We believe that a new understanding of vibration could usher in the next evolutionary step for this planet. New forms of science, technology, medicine, architecture and design, and a higher collective consciousness may all be realized through vibration and music.”
Given all that talk of understanding, my girlfriend and I were surprised to see a sign as we were walking into the Newport that said “No glowsticks!” The security man demanded we take off our matching glow necklaces (they each had a soft, spikey rubber ball on a string that blinked in multiple colored flashes). This demand was hard to believe because STS9 is known as a psychedelic band, and I’ve seen shows in San Francisco (the band’s unofficial home since most of the members moved from Georgia to Santa Cruz in 2000) where half the crowd donned glowing bling. After brief discussion soon thereafter with the band’s friendly merchandise woman, we were informed that the security guard had indeed been overzealous. The band requests no glowsticks because fans like to throw them and they have in the past hit their state-of-the-art soundboard, disrupting the mix. Perfectly understandable. But as I suspected, the band has nothing against glowing bling that remains around your neck.
As the band wound down the first set with fan favorite “Circus”, I found myself in the midst of a pleasant flashback. I hadn’t been to the Newport in many years and was reminded of how it sort of resembles San Francisco’s classic Great American Music Hall. There’s an intimate vibe and quite a bit of musical history—after all, the Newport has been hosting rock shows for almost 40 years.
The second set was pure kind. The band does a great job of seamlessly mixing its newer songs in with the old ones. For most bands, this presents a challenge since many fans want to sing along to old favorites. With STS9, it almost doesn’t matter. They can play a newer song like second set opener “Rent” and get the fans dancing just as hard as they would to an older, more familiar tune like “Grow”. As with most of their great shows, the second set was an almost seamless flow of tight jams.
The band’s musical alchemy continues to evolve, though, as guitarist Hunter Brown and bassist David Murphy start an increasing number of songs with sampled grooves from laptop computers. Every time they start out on the computers, the rock purist in me thinks, “Get off those dang computers and play your instruments.” But, unlike artists who use samples because they can’t play instruments, STS9 aren’t reliant on computer technology. They use it to creatively enhance their music, not make it for them.
Even ace percussionist Jeffrey Lerner toyed with some sort of synth-y device. And of course, keyboardist David Phipps is a Jedi master of synth psychedelia, with his tremendously varied bag of keyboard tricks. The group sampling has been part of the band’s musical evolution since a July 2001 show at San Francisco’s Justice League where they billed themselves as “Tzolkin”, so that they could experiment with the computers without disappointing fan expectations. This electronic arm of the band is constantly evolving, yet always comes back to the ecstatic groove—driven by Zach Velmer’s superhuman drumming—that enables a crowd to forget everything else and just BE.
STS9 is known as a late-night band so the show didn’t end until around 1:15am. The band certainly wasn’t worn out, though—the “Four Year Puma” encore rocked as hard as anything they’d played all night and had the crowd reacting in kind. It felt as if there was sort of a poetic symmetry between the concert and the earlier basketball game (the Cavs won by the way!). Like the Cavaliers’ 21-year-old all-star who was anointed “The Chosen One” before he played his first NBA game, STS9 are still a relatively young band.
Spilling out on to the street after the show led to a classic High Street moment. A young gentleman by the name of “Kingpin” was delivering a stylish rap with an O-H-I-O chorus and lyrics that referenced Lebron and the Cavs, Ohio State having “the best football team in the U-S-A”, and his love for the Browns. This fellow had serious skills himself, and a small crowd soon gathered around him, sharing in the groove—a scene similar to that in the frequently aired K-Swiss commercial. The same type of knowing smiles that fans exchanged during the show were being exchanged again, everyone still feeling the loving vibration of the show and refusing to let it end.