For Tim Reynolds, playing in his former hometown at a venue that didn’t exist during his residency must be something of a surreal experience. Five years ago, he performed at an ancient and astonishingly greasy bar a few blocks northeast of the Satellite Ballroom—it was his first homecoming show in years. Enthused by Reynolds’ 1999 double-disc with Dave Matthews, Live at Luther College, area college students turned out for the occasion slightly drunk, fully bekhakied, and ready for an evening of frat-tastic acoustic tunes.
But Reynolds hit the stage wearing a gas mask and started heaving industrial metal without so much as a word. Watching the look of horror gradually wash over the unsuspecting Pi Kappa Alpha lads like a plague of locusts was quite a spectacle, and by the end of the night, the packed house had dwindled to two rows of converts. The poor guy actually thanked them for staying.
Thanks to a string of regional appearances over the course of the last year, there were no such misfires this time around. Reynolds’ current tour does indeed lean to the acoustic side, but almost nobody from the DMB fan base turned out; instead, the audience consisted mostly of grungy young males, most of whom seemed to be guitarists themselves and thus knew the perfect superlatives to heap upon him.
Reynolds is a small, vaguely impish man, so his fretboard moves, though entirely inhuman, still seemed in character—nimble and mischievous, that is, and just a little magical. The raw speed and unmatched precision he displays on an electric guitar were unchanged on the acoustic, despite its reputation as a slower instrument, and his sharp melodic runs disappeared into the night just as readily. What little space remained between notes was soon filled by their disembodied auras: growling volume swells, ringing harmonics, and throbbing quarter-note echoes.
The tunes with lyrics, however, seem like they should be the work of a singer-songwriter type, and that’s one thing Reynolds definitely isn’t. Wizard? Sure. Musical miracle? Quite possibly. But can he play credible reggae? Not a chance.
Still, you’d think that the opportunity to see a master up close as he works his instrument in the raw would be a transcendental experience. With all due respect to Reynolds’ spacey wobbles and echo-laden swirls, that wasn’t really the case; he seemed to do best when he wasn’t saddled with duties of pulse, rhythm, or harmony. When he put his fingers on autopilot and let them free-associate on the fretboard, it made for a stupefying display, but his talents were ultimately wasted on rhythm guitar. Sometimes he was able to set himself up through the use of loops and delays, but he’d probably have done better with someone else providing a context—or, rather, a launch pad.
That finally came about at the very end of his set. For the finale, Reynolds jammed his way through “In a Silent Way” with opener Mike Sokolowski—offering the song as a tribute to recently departed Weather Report keyboardist Joe Zawinul. For the first time, his fingers could do as they pleased, as Sokolowski eased through the chord progression on a rickety old upright. Sparkling natural harmonics, knuckle-rapping percussion, and short bursts of melody combined to form a subtle wash of sound, and after ramming it all through a ring modulator, Reynolds called it a night.
Once again, the room was sparsely populated. “Thank you for coming out tonight,” he said. “And you, and you, and you…” He rattled them off very quickly and with a lighthearted smirk, but he came dangerously close to squeezing one out for everybody in the room. Aside from a traumatized class of Pi Kaps, not much has changed in the last few years; nearly a decade after Luther College, Tim Reynolds is still a sleeper hit.