[28 March 2004]
This DVD is basically everything I thought I wanted: a visual representation of one of my favorite live albums ever, 2002’s Live at Stern Grove in San Francisco. Tabla Beat Science, as I’ve said before, is a great multi-ethnic jam band headed up by charismatic percussion god Zakir Hussain and featuring some of the real studs of electro-Indian/African/American music, and the idea of seeing how they actually do their shit in concert was almost too much to believe. I mean, I guess I should have known that a label called Palm Pictures was going to do lots of DVD action with its artists. I’m just saying I was excited, okay?
It starts out, as does the original album, with an epic duet between Hussain and sarangi master Ustad Sultan Khan. I was eager to see this because it seemed that there was no way that two humans could make all the sounds they made, but here’s the evidence: yes, Zakir Hussain can make that many timed and tuned drum sounds with just two drums and two hands, and yes, Khan can make an ancient Indian cello-like instrument sound like a violin AND like a metal guitar AND like a sitar, just by varying the way he bows the thing. When you just hear this on disc, it doesn’t really communicate the way these two interact, which is pretty awesome to see-a look or glance here, and they’re off on a new path, clearly improvising all the way, at times bursting into delighted surprised smiles when they see what the other is up to.
If the whole DVD was taken up with these two, I personally would be fascinated, but I realize that this sort of thing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Director Alex Winter throws in reaction shots of the crowd, obviously digging it in the club, and occasionally tries to pretty it up with haunting images of Indian vistas and cool-looking sculptures, which is admirable in a way, even though it kind of annoys me. But of course the rest of the band has to come in, so it couldn’t just be these two guys anyway.
And it really is a kick-ass band. Indian/American Karsh Kale, probably the second-greatest tabla player I’ve ever heard, sits down at the drum kit and shows he can bash it out with the best; Bill Laswell, who got the whole thing together in the first place, is on bass; the Indian techno team called MIDIval PunditZ are on the decks, sampling and replaying things live during the performance; Fabian Asultany squiggles and rocks out on synthesizer; and XXXX “Gigi” Shibabaw does her singing thing on the far right for a couple of tracks. Every one of them could credibly lead their own band (actually, most of them do), but watching them play together is quite an experience.
But it’s not always a dynamic experience. Hussain and Khan and Kale are undeniably having fun onstage, interacting with and trying to one-up each other-the tabla/drum battle between Hussain and Kale is a hoot, they’re trying to duet beat for beat, it’s awesome-and the performance really revolves around them. But Laswell isn’t having any of that “fun” stuff; his disengagement might be due to shyness or the weird position of being the only “white guy” on stage, but he comes off pissy, a negative energy zone. Gigi is a great singer and has a funky thing going on, but she just appears and sings her tracks to the audience and then disappears without really seeming part of the band. And the PunditZ and Asultany are relegated to background presences, shadowy gnomes doing their brave service without flair or flash.
Which is all fine, not everyone in a band is gonna be all glitz and glamour, that would be boring too. But it sounds better than it looks. There is a momentary tease here when the DVD promises that we can control the images that go with the music by choosing on what to focus-but the alternate images offered are limited, just focusing on one other bandmember or showing pretty landscape shots or crowd reactions or something. I wanted full access, dammit!
Maybe I’m just reacting to the similarities of the music here to the CD they’ve already released; recorded right around the same time, this DVD features either the exact same songs or renamed versions of those tracks, sometimes elongated somewhat but bearing the exact same structure. Come on, where’s the left-field cover of “96 Tears” or “Oops I Did It Again” or whatever? And the extras aren’t really much to speak of: a press conference here, a trip to India there, eh. I would have loved a “Making of the Band” feature, but alas it was not to be. Ultimately, if you have the album, you really don’t need the DVD, and vice versa.
But hey, what the hell am I quibbling about? When it comes down to it, this is a visual representation of some of the most important and beautiful music being made today. It shows not only how that music gets made, but does so capably and with some cool flourishes. So yeah, this is probably something you need if you’re into this kind of music, or international techno, at all.