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Pa Rum Pum Pum Pum: Ches Smith at the Windup Space, April 28

April 22, 2010
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Ches Smith, at some other show

The life of the solo drummer has gotta be a rough one, up there all alone and exposed, goofy faces front-and-center, every little stumble comically magnified, or, worse, just keeping what is essentially one long drum solo—that now somewhat maligned relic of bands with big hair—not just interesting but engaging enough to keep a bar crowd quiet for 45-odd minutes. In other words, being a solo drummer, on a solo drummer tour, takes some guts.

Maybe you recognize Ches Smith, the current drummer in question. Until recently, he drummed for the hyperventilating avant-rock qua emo-freak-out unit Xiu Xiu, a band that racked up some notable musical successes in its career, but also recently jumped the shark into brutal, outright self-parody, e.g. an album actually called Dear God, I Hate Myself. Anyhow, Smith drums for the Secret Chiefs 3 now, which is one of the bands that freak-jazz omnivore Mr. Bungle occasionally turns into. And, meanwhile, he drums by his lonesome just as Chas Smith.

Last night, on a brief tour jaunt from New York, he, if not dazzled, at least kept the Windup Space on its toes for 40 or so minutes. It wasn’t all drumming, actually—in addition to his drum kit, notably sporting one odd cymbal at least a couple of feet above the rest, Smith performed pieces on a glockenspiel, a tiny electronic keyboard, and a small smattering of electronic noisemakers. The mallet pieces were nice and pleasant, playing moderately paced melodies against substrata reverberations, a nice kind of “floating” feeling.

There were also a few more abstract ambient passages that felt more like transitional clips between glockenspiel and drums. And it was those drums where Smith shone. Tony Buck, of out-jazz trio the Necks, is the last solo drummer I can remember being out and out wowed by, but his sparse, very abstract drumming is a much different beast than Smith’s bogglingly quick and complex work, effing with rhythms like a malfunctioning transmission, or stacking and weaving already dense, if sonically distinct, patterns on top of one another. At one point, he would let a rhythm breathe a bit more and press a couple of notes on the keyboard, or let a burst of hot electronic noise underpin the drumming. But neither accompaniment sounded particularly necessary—Smith does just fine with only a pair of sticks.

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