By: Dave Cooper
District 97 | website | facebook | twitter | and the Dave Kerzner Band | website | facebook | twitter |
Support: Oktopus | website
The Robin 2 | March 28, 2016
Tonight’s progressive rock showcase gig at the much-beloved Robin 2 (described by District 97 vocalist Leslie Hunt Siebold as “the hotbed of British progressive rock” – a worthy accolade to be sure and not without some merit) offers a chance to see two successful American bands play full sets. It’s a rarity for bands at their level to be able to afford to tour extensively at all, let alone outside of the USA, where air fares and equipment hire usually make touring a pure vanity exercise. However, District 97’s expanding fanbase successfully funded a crowdfunding campaign to enable the band to make the trek across the Atlantic, and the band, keen to make every penny count, made further savings by going out on the road with Dave Kerzner’s band. For Kerzner, keyboard player with recent crossover prog successes Sound of Contact, these are his first solo dates outside of the USA, playing material from his début solo album, the polished and vaguely Floydian New World, which was released last year. Tonight’s line-up is completed with local band Oktopus.
The three-piece Oktopus were previously named Progoktopus – presumably, the “prog” preface to their name was ditched because the fact that they are a progressive rock band is obvious as soon as they start playing. The band are about to release their début album, and tonight’s short set – less than half a dozen tracks – is largely culled from their new recording. They get straight down to business, with jokey between-song banter cut down to a minimum. Oktopus display some real potential – they are certainly no slouches instrumentally speaking, as they rapidly evidence by tacking an almost note-for-note reading of the instrumental break from Dream Theater’s intricate showcase ‘Metropolis Part I’ onto the second song of their set. Similarly impressive is the Rush-meets-Dream Theater-meets-Zappa instrumental mayhem of new song ‘The Adventures Of Jerry Troutmonto (Part 1)’. Bassist Samuel Roberts is clearly having the time of his life throughout the set, and the nimble drumming, courtesy of Tim Wilson, drives the band’s music along in a pleasingly frenetic way. However, there is still some work to do. Perhaps the most evident issue is that guitarist/vocalist Alistair Bell, whilst a splendid guitarist, is clearly no lead vocalist: he starts the set well enough, but by the end is plainly attempting to sing well outside his range. The general impression tonight is that Oktopus are a band with genuine potential who are sorely in need of a dedicated vocalist. Nevertheless, they seem to go down well with the assembled crowd and it could well be that their début album, Worlds Apart, will garner them some well-deserved attention.
When Dave Kerzner and his band take to the stage, however, the atmosphere changes altogether, to something more respectful and expectant, and it is plain just by checking out the T-shirts of the assembled that Kerzner’s set is as much a draw for many here tonight as District 97 are. Kerzner’s band – drawn from various sources – are fresh from tour rehearsals and are exceptionally tight and slick. Kerzner’s set is unsurprisingly drawn largely from his solo album, New World, but he finds time to insert a medley drawn from Sound of Contact’s Dimensionaut album, as well as respectful covers of ELP’s ‘Lucky Man’ (complete with an affectionate tribute for the recently deceased Keith Emerson) and, most dramatically, Pink Floyd’s ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’, which allows vocalist Durga McBroom – who has spent many years touring with Pink Floyd – to showcase her incredible vocal talents. If you close your eyes, you could be at a Floyd show – at least if you filled in the spoken word samples in your head – and McBroom’s staggering performance receives one of the loudest ovations all evening. Kerzner’s own solo material is largely mid-paced, but is wonderfully atmospheric, with the haunting and truly outstanding ‘Stranded’ being a particular highlight. We’re also treated to moody readings of ‘The Lie’ and the menacing ‘Under Control’, before the band take things up a gear for the last few songs. The closing ‘Into The Sun’ provides a wonderful showcase for guitarist Fernando Perdomo, who gets so thoroughly lost in his own soloing that the band are left to keep the rolling ending going as Perdomo dives for his effects pedals to provide the coup de grace. Kerzner is an amiable and effective frontman, peppering the set with humorous anecdotes and an endearing tirade about British Airways, who managed to lose some of Kerzner’s merchandise en route from the USA, that leaves his audience muttering in evident empathy. Kerzner’s band prove more than up to the task of reproducing his filmic solo material, with a wonderful rhythm section anchoring the music to earth. Mostly Autumn drummer Alex Cromarty in particular turns in a great performance, effortlessly reproducing the demanding drum parts for the Sound of Contact medley without breaking a sweat. By the end of their set they have plainly won over the assembled crowd; here’s hoping that the British Airways debacle doesn’t dissuade Kerzner from returning to the UK again in the near future.
And so it is time for tonight’s final band, District 97. Having very recently replaced two key members in departing bassist and songwriter Patrick Mulcahy and virtuoso keyboardist Rob Clearfield, and not having toured the UK before – their solo UK appearance prior to this year’s tour being a rapturously received appearance at the Celebr8.2 festival a couple of years ago – the band hit the stage with everything to prove, but the audience is already on their side. Opening with an immaculate ‘Snow Country’ from the latest album In Vaults, the band have the audience eating out of their hands right from the beginning. Drawn in by the band’s evident energy and vocalist Leslie Hunt Siebold’s unquestioned charisma, there is a steady movement of people towards the stage as District 97 cast their spell – a spell that remains unbroken even when guitarist Jim Tashjian experiences some guitar issues halfway through the second song of the set, the baleful ‘Death By A Thousand Cuts’. Breaking a string during a particularly outre solo, Tashjian is momentarily confounded as to the best course of action, resulting in him disappearing stage left to receive a guitar loan from Dave Kerzner’s guitarist Fernando Perdomo whilst the rest of the band plough on to finish the song without him. If it wasn’t for Tashjian’s furrowed brow and the familiarity of some with the material, the mishap might not even have been especially noteworthy, Hunt Siebold being moved to pronounce the band’s ability to finish the song “pretty pro”. Tashjian, returning triumphant to the stage with Perdomo’s guitar, laughs along with the audience as Perdomo pleads with him from the crowd not to throw the guitar at any point.
Such a mishap early in the set may have derailed a lesser band, but District 97 are now well and truly in the zone and plough on, continuing to dazzle their audience. The dark fatalism of ‘A Lottery’ builds into a dervish of staccato riffing, before the epic newlywed-as-serial-murder-victim ballad ‘The Perfect Young Man’ unravels over its ten minute length to maximum effect, Tashjian doing a valiant job in reproducing John Wetton’s male vocal part from the band’s studio recording in between some complex soloing. A mid-song breakdown provides instrumental fireworks aplenty, including ample evidence that new keyboardist Andrew Lawrence is more than capable of delivering ex-keyboardist Rob Clearfield’s challenging parts. Plainly delighted with the reception to their set thus far, the band continue with a swirling, polyrhythmic ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, powered along by drummer Jonathan Schang’s best Phil Collins-influenced playing, which provides as close to a breather in tonight’s high-energy set as the audience will receive.
A storming, anthemic ‘Takeover’ receives a loud response from the increasingly enthusiastic audience, and is followed by the gun-control themed ‘On Paper’, prefaced by a discussion of how the band’s native Chicago has become the murder capital of the USA. District 97’s willingness to address these more worldly concerns is very much to their credit, but their ability to weld these kind of lyrical themes to such inventive musical fare displays a confidence and dedication to song craft way beyond their years. Once again, both ‘On Paper’ and the subsequent ‘Read Your Mind’ contain wonderfully complex instrumental breakdowns that allow the band to display an almost telepathic ability to lock into interconnecting grooves that in turn are used as launch pads for solo spots that are by turns wilfully dissonant or effortlessly melodic. District 97’s ability to effortlessly switch between these extremes is perhaps their biggest strength; one they share with progressive rock giants like King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator. So perhaps it’s no surprise that they then choose to play a cover of Crimson’s ‘One More Red Nightmare’, jokingly dedicated to Donald Trump and re-titled ‘One More Orange Nightmare’. Bands plunder the Crimson back catalogue at their peril, but District 97’s reading of this evergreen Crimson classic is pretty much flawless.
The set concludes with the final three sections of the progressive rock epic ‘Mindscan’ from the bands first album, Hybrid Child. It is perhaps demonstrative of the band’s development over the intervening half decade that the material from their début album sounds so much more powerful and intense in 2016. Everyone plays out of their skin for this grand finale: Schang appears to be playing at least three separate drum parts simultaneously, Lawrence and Tashjian’s hands are a positive blur, and new bassist Tim Seisser’s bassline is positively tornadic as the last section of ‘Mindscan’ spirals inexorably towards its thunderous end. Her vocal section complete, Hunt Siebold remains in thrall to proceedings, dancing around the stage, eyes closed – and this stuff is not easy to dance to. Her ability to hone in on even the most unpredictable of melodic lines has made her the perfect foil for this band, and even when not singing, she is still performing; it’s plain this stuff is in her marrow.
The band disappear offstage with broad smiles as the venue erupts into cheers far louder than an audience this size should be capable of producing, but they’re soon back for their encore: ‘Termites’, another song from their first album (we’re the termites, in case you wondered). This too has never sounded more potent and driven, a slant-eyed ramrod of pure cynicism driven along by piledriving riffing from Tashjian and Seisser, and a relentless drum assault from Schang. The band are playing with abandon, as if no-one is watching; except for Hunt Siebold, who stalks stage front, delivering the intense lyric to the assembled with evident relish. When she delivers a full-bore scream towards the end of the number, it feels like the roof is going to come clean off the Robin 2. By the end of the song, there’s literally nowhere for the band to go and they suddenly seem as spent as their audience, whose cheers are wildly enthusiastic yet ragged. As the band take their bow, the audience seem reluctant to let them leave, perhaps because they know full well that it may be a while before this hugely talented, wildly adventurous and wonderfully entertaining band make it back to the UK. Truly, District 97 are proving to be one of the best kept secrets in progressive rock. On this showing they richly deserve a wider audience and have the talent and belief to make it happen. We can only hope that they can be tempted back for more shows soon.