Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid

[30 April 2007]

By Phil Perkins

Best known for his work as imitable electro fiend Four Tet, Kieran Hebden is a man with the Midas touch: everything he turns his hand to receives critical and popular acclaim. And, on Tongues, his latest collaborative effort with acclaimed jazz drummer Steve Reid, he once again proves that he can do no wrong. Of course, multiple successes have their price: with a new album due this month from his other avant-electro post-rock outfit, Fridge, one wonders if this, the final date on his current tour, was the last time we’ll see Hebden stepping out from under his monikers for quite some time.

The opening band, a group whose name has managed to escape all record (seriously, try searching them out), didn’t exactly set the mood for the evening—or, at least not the one we expected. Comprised of three jolty looking men in tight jeans, the group spent 30 minutes gyrating on the corner of the stage, bumping into one another, and gritting their teeth. It took a while for the audience to finally stand up, realizing they were at a gig in Brighton and not caught in the midst of some weird ‘60s freak-out session. For their part, the band expended energy via intense gazes at the floor of the Komedia, stopping occasionally to pull their trousers up and look nervously towards an audience that frankly didn’t care. The audience was rigid and unimpressed by what could have been an incredibly energetic set; I got the impression that on any other night this band is probably great, but, as an unanticipated addition to the evening, they just couldn’t connect.

Seeing the last date of any tour is always a bit of a worry, and, especially after such mood-killing opener, I had my fingers firmly crossed, hoping that Hebden and Reid would close the tour with a bang. I felt a sense of relief as a casually dressed Hebden walked on to the stage grinning from ear to ear. As Reid coolly traversed the stage and took his position at the drum kit, the pair looked up and acknowledged each other’s presence. Compared to Reid, who has played with artists like Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, James Brown, Fela Kuti and Sun Ra, Hebden’s a relative newbie. Still, you could feel the respect as the feeling in the room immediately changed.

Reid created an almost karmic atmosphere with a handful of tingsha bells and a gentle pitter-patter on the kit, as Hebden threw himself toward the opposite end of the spectrum. The music was exactly what you’d expect from two seasoned professionals at the top of their game. Hebden seemed almost demonic as he manipulated and masticated his samples. At one point, he looked up over the mess of wires and bared his teeth in a manic smile. Reid responded with a subtle nod, then, closing his eyes, he rocked back on his stool and screamed ‘oh yeah,’ before returning to the drums for a flurry of sketches that made the support band’s Mac-based drum loops sound like something out of a ZX Spectrum.

In the first few minutes, the clash of sounds seemed almost like some kind of battle of good vs. evil. As the apparent chaos ensued, it slowly began to melt the senses, and most in the audience began to rock uncontrollably back and forth. Much like a tennis match, the audience’s stare bounced between the two players, flitting from left to right between the ever contorting shapes and sounds coming from Hebden and the fluid, organic rhythms that emerged as Reid caressed his drum kit.

It soon became clear that, far from being a battle, this performance was a joint effort, a democratic union of two musicians. They weren’t trying to outdo each other; they were supporting one another. They were combining their efforts, combining their differences. They were speaking in tongues, then molding their separate languages into an exceptionally colorful patois of sound.

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