Sleepytime Gorilla Museum – [Live]

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

In 1975 when Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was performed live, accusations of Peter Gabriel being "pretentious" were the buzz words among prog-rock’s self inflated elitists. I missed that tour—didn't discover Genesis until 1977, after the original band broke up, but I did not miss Sleepytime Gorilla Museum's performance of the "We Must Learn More" tour; or whatever the hell you want to call what happened at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.

I actually felt like I was at an amazing prog-rock show of the 70s; sitting in the balcony next to a group of astute young men who were discussing the hidden meanings of the works of SGM, recalling previous Estradasphere performances and wondering whether the rumors were true that OVO were a married couple or not.

It was a night for extreme expressions of avant-garde musicianship and performance art. I would hesitate to describe any of the acts this night as absurdist though, as prog-rock mastery of this magnitude is extremely well thought out. The evening opened with the nearly lunatic rantings, screamings, drum beatings, howlings, guitar squeelings and drones of OVO, a husband and wife musical duo from Italy. Stefania Pedretti and Bruno Dorella describe their "sound" as "sludge from outer space." Twice, Bruno went out into the audience to play his instruments; once with his drum and again with his guitar. I was in the balcony and did not get to see this up close but the personalizing effect seemed highly stimulating to the unaware audience. The most bizarre highlight of their 30-minute set was when Stefania took a violin bow wired with a pickup to one of her knee-length dreadlocks! It did not seem like many people in the audience knew what to expect with this band, or how to react. Generally though, it seemed like everyone really loved them—a perfect opening band for the insanity that lay ahead.

The next band on stage was Estradasphere. After reading the wiki description of shows performed earlier in the millennium in Santa Cruz, I half expected to see people dressed up in circus garb in the line outside of the venue. This was not the case, despite the fact that this was a Saturday night in San Francisco (where ANYTHING goes). The only costumes I saw were worn by the members of the bands; Estradasphere's Timb Harris dressed as a cowboy, Jason Schimmel wore a parka-suit, Lee Smith looked like a hippie, Jason Schimmel wore white slacks, a red blazer and a Panama hat, while Adam Stacey finished off the odd mixture by wearing a toga-like bath towel. Compared to the tribal-looking outfits that both OVO and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum wore, these guys were the sane and sober section of the night. Their music was not sober though. These guys are virtuosos; accomplished as individual musicians yet when they come together to play the effect is synchronistic. They are a bit of a jam band, but a very good jam band that can play complex and intricate melodies that give each member of the band ample opportunity to display their skills. The fellow sitting next to me was able to identify songs from their two albums but also stated that they opened with a piece he had never heard before. Being a fan of guitar jams, I was most impressed by the ferocious escapades of Jason Schimmel. That dude was wailing on his guitar with prog-rock finesse of John McLaughlin magnitude! Well, sort of…

It wasn't too long after their set before the members of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum came on stage. They mounted the stage in near-complete darkness as there was a lot of prep work to do with their bizarre arsenal of instruments. They are conceptual musicians of extreme significance and impact. I did not have time to fully appreciate this fact in my precursory listening to their albums prior to this concert. That did not matter though. The concepts of the story were revealed to the audience in a storytelling fashion in between songs. If you did not already know what the story (or concept) of the night’s performance was, it was explained to you. This required the rare performance to take over two hours to complete. Halfway through the concert the storytelling was taken to a ridiculous and rather ludicrous level where stage actors were brought out to help "explain" in pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo what the story of "The Last Human" was all about. This brought about an abrupt halt to the intensity the musical performance had achieved and after 20 minutes of actors reading lines off pages the audience grew restless. There had been a tremendous momentum built up with the intensity of the music, plus, dancer Shinichi Momo Koga hanging inverted in a makeshift cage entranced everyone with his gesticulations. Until he actually came out of the cage we were all wondering "What the hell IS that thing in there??" The "LAST" Human. Ahhh, yes. Up to this point the musicianship and wonderful carrying-ons of Koga made the performance seem like a perfect creation. The stage acting was an amateurish ploy, maybe just needed to give the musicians a chance to rest. A proper intermission that would have allowed the audience to reflect on what we had seen so far would have been wiser.

More on Sleepytime Gorilla Museum here:

More on Estradasphere here:

More on OVO here:

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