The tone scientists of STS9 are at the top of their game here, mixing songs together for unique mashups as they push the improvisational envelope to the edge.
There’s a homecoming vibe in the air around the Fillmore on this cool autumn Sunday evening and it’s been a long time coming. STS9 (aka Sound Tribe Sector 9) is set to wrap their fall tour with a Sunday funday blowout in their first appearance at San Francisco’s fabled Fillmore Auditorium since 2009. For many of the band’s longtime Bay Area fans, the Fillmore shows that the jamtronica quintet played in 2001-02 (after relocating from Georgia to Santa Cruz) were where the band came of age. There was a special vibe as a genuine scene developed that in many ways seemed to harken back to the free-spirited counterculture vibe of peace and harmony that fans had only heard about the Grateful Dead fostering at the Fillmore in the ‘60s.
But STS9’s rising popularity soon outgrew the Fillmore and so the band found themselves moving on to larger theater venues. STS9’s signature blend of 21st century dance music with full band dynamics has developed a deeply devoted following. Demand for this return to sacred ground is therefore high, with tickets originally being tied to a two-day package including Saturday night at the larger Masonic in San Francisco’s Nob Hill area. The band threw down a barnburner and now anticipation grows for the Fillmore finale. STS9 has been touring behind their new album, The Universe Inside, an energetic disc with a fresh distillation of their ongoing effort to create infectious grooves with a spiritually uplifting vibration. The band’s website references the golden records that NASA sent out into the cosmos on the Voyager 1 and 2 missions in an attempt to communicate an intent of peace and harmony.
“While the Golden Records included greetings in 59 languages, they made no mention of nations and borders, wars and rivalries, or anything else that divides us. What they did mention was life, love, peace, birth -- the things that bind us to one another and to the planet we call home. The Universe Inside is a reflection of this message. It is a story about human identity and the magical truth of who we are, where we’re going, and our place in the Universe. It says we are one, made of stardust and the forces of nature that evolved over billions of years. Connected by the sun, moon, and stars, we are the living, breathing conscience of the Universe.”
That may be a bit on the metaphysical hippie side of things for some people in this cynical day and age, but such a sense of universal oneness has long infused STS9’s music and thus the vibrant positivity of their scene. “New Dawn New Day” from the new album sets an uplifting tone from the start as the band hits the stage running. The vintage groove of “Monkey Music”, however, indicates that this show will have plenty of old school fan favorites, too. This is confirmed when the band artfully jams into the Grateful Dead’s seminal “Dark Star”. It’s an instant peak moment in STS9 history as the audience goes wild for the electrifyingly sublime bust out of the psychedelic classic that started it all. To witness STS9 pay such tribute to the Dead at the Fillmore is like something from a dream.
They only play “Dark Star” for a few minutes, but the jam announces an intention for a historic night that infuses the rest of the show. A slew of older STS9 classics follow with a big version of “Today” from 2005’s masterpiece Artifact seeming to acknowledge that album’s recent vinyl re-release. “Evasive Maneuvers” launches a sizzling space rock jam, while “Kamuy” delivers more sublime cosmic funk. Drummer Zach Velmer plays with a tight precision and sonic fury that makes it feel like the clock has indeed turned back to 2001, augmented by the crisp percussion of Jeffree Lerner and multi-dimensional synth psychedelia of keyboard wiz David Phipps.
The new “Give & Take” resonates with a more dynamic sound than it does on the album, where some of the songs feel a bit overproduced with pop vocal samples. Bassist Alana Rocklin lays down a pulsing bassline that has people getting down, while Phipps and guitarist Hunter Brown weave sharp melody lines around the driving beat. The rare “Poseidon” finds the band exploring a laid back groove that evolves into a triumphant Atlantean funk jam before the band closes the set with a deep sonic journey on the classic “Jebez”. STS9 takes the Fillmore to the mountaintop here, with the quintet’s chemistry sizzling as Phipps leads the way with gorgeous piano work on one of the band’s old school organica jams. The elated crowd roars its approval as Velmer greets them from the front of the stage.
“It’s been a long time since we played here... it feels pretty good actually,” Velmer says. The setbreak is a joy as there’s no doubt this show is one for the ages. STS9 wastes no time by kicking off the second set with the melodic bliss of “Forest Hu”, another Artifact classic. “Really Wut” sends the dance party into high gear with some extra jamming that leads into another vintage classic with a deep jam in “Blue Mood”. The energy of the set continues its ascension with perennial jam vehicle “Instantly”, which then surprisingly segues into a truly epic rendition of Artifact classic “Glogli” for a stupendous jam that makes it feel like the Fillmore is going to blast off into space.
It feels like the entire cosmos is aligning on the “Glogli” jam as the band and audience fall into a collective groove for a timeless moment of intergalactic harmony. The tone scientists of STS9 are at the top of their game here, mixing samples from “Instantly” into the “Glogli” jam for a unique mashup as they push the improvisational envelope to the edge. All the elements come together as the music plays the band with Phipps and Brown laying down dazzling melodies over the scintillating groove that just goes deeper and deeper as the Fillmore dances up a cosmic storm. The band keeps the music going by smoothly segueing into “Call”, another deep groove that keeps the music flowing as the band continues to jam out. Brown lays down some fiery licks to build the jam as the band moves back into “Instantly” to wrap it up as they finally take a well-earned pause.
They crank it right back up with the new “Totem”, a mid-tempo tune featuring some spiritually minded sound bites from philosopher Alan Watts. Rocklin lays down a warm walking bassline as the drummers work up another strong polyrhythmic groove in the vein of “Glogli”, but with its own signature melodies from Brown’s funky staccato riffage. The band is in a deeply improvisational flow tonight and so it is again as the song is explored for over ten minutes before moving into the dirty space funk of “The Rabble”. The eerie yet funky sound gets the room grooving again as the band rocks out on the oddly syncopated yet infectious tune.
STS9 continues to keep the improv vibe going with another masterful segue into “EHM”, the epic jam vehicle dedicated to author John Perkins’ bold expose of corporatocracy greed in his bestselling book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. This really gets the crowd going at a peak level again as the band rocks out on “EHM”, segues back into a deeper jam on “The Rabble” and then back into “EHM” again for a tour de force finale.
The improv continues in the encore as the band uses the new “Elsewhere” as an intro to segue into the fan favorite “Water Song”, perhaps a tip of the cap to the water protectors at the Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline. The dynamic tune has the Fillmore getting down one more time in celebration of what is arguably the show of the year at the venue. The sensational jams also soon have fans talking online about how this show is a strong contender for the best of the band’s “2.0” era (since Rocklin replaced original bassist David Murphy at the beginning of 2014.) The band’s improvisational prowess has certainly been building and this show has found the quintet putting it all together.
The triple encore concludes with “March” as the band lays down a propulsive tune that feels like it’s designed to energize the political revolution needed to save America from the corporate greedheads that would preside over the ruin of democracy. Musicians may not be able to directly affect such political happenings, but by touring around the country pushing the good vibe, STS9 empowers their fans to feel that the movement for global peace and harmony is still very much alive and well.