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Published: 2002/02/11
by Jesse Jarnow

Billy Martin, Tonic, NYC- 2/9

NYC ROLL-TOP: illy B & the Tonic Attack

"I didn't expect this many people," Billy Martin called with cupped hands
from the stage at Tonic. Behind him, near the back of the shallow stage, was
his drum kit. Also behind him was a dazzling array of percussion, spread
across the stage: a set of congas, an unidentified larger African drum
across between a conga and a kick-drum, a collection of loose and shiny
cymbals laid on a rug, several mbiras, a mallet-played melodic wooden
thingeemebobber, and a seemingly endless supplies of shakers and random
smaller objects to be hit. In front of him was a gently surging crowd that
peacefully filled the bulk of the old cement box. With the exception of two
mics aimed at the mbiras, nothing was mic'ed.

Without even a second glance at the myriad toys before him, Martin sat down
at the drum kit, no hesitation, and began to lay down two patterns, one on
the hi-hat and one on the kick drum. Make no mistake about it, Billy Martin
is a monster of a technical player. But, really, that doesn't mean shit. He
can play in ridiculous time signatures with ridiculous dexterity, but it
doesn't matter a damn if it doesn't sound cool. It takes a weird and
powerful mix of a man to be able to devote that much of his life to a
certain craft and then be able to resist the urge – even at a solo
performance – to not show it off. When the crazy rhythm on the kick-drum
danced in and out of the simple 4/4 of the hi-hat, it was more than a
technical exercise: it was two voices coming together in a piece of music.

Like the two solo percussion discs released in the last year – illy B
Eats, and Black Elk Speaks – there was an astounding sense of
melody and progression that ran throughout. Later, as he stooped prostrate
over the mbiras, people in the front row could hear him humming along.
Behind the kit, even after that, his mouth moved, creating a counterpoint to
the melody of the drums. Martin's voice is filled with air and organic
space. His snare almost never cracks; rather, it curls through the
air and gently snaps, as if it had come a long distance to deliver an urgent

Billy Martin clearly loves what he does. Up front in the club, anyway, the
vibe was ridiculously. It's a clichof course, but it felt like Martin's
living room, and he played in it accordingly: stomping on stray pieces of
percussion when necessary, contorting himself to be able to hit the right
drum even when it was theoretically outside of striking distance, and – at
one point – launching a series of shakers-turned-projectiles over the traps
to land on the various cymbals at the front of the stage. He staged a
conversation between two duck calls, simultaneously articulate and

As a witness to the performance, it's hard to pinpoint exactly where the
wonder and astonishment stemmed from. Is seeing believing? Or is hearing
believing? I guess it depends on what the effect is… and, of course, where
you stand. I managed to snare a spot in the front row, a row of stacked
chairs the only thing between my body the low stage. There is something
magical about hearing unamplified instruments, no speaker system mediating
between the ear and the source of the sound. When I closed my eyes, the
sonic picture – in real, living stereo – was utterly wondrous. When I opened
them, of course, I could see Martin. Was I amazed because of the nature of
what I was hearing? Or was I amazed because I could see Martin making it?

In other words: was it an experience reproducible for others, should they
hear the tape? Or even just be standing at the back of the room? Would it
just sound like an indistinguishable rhythmic mess to somebody else? What if
they weren't interested in drums to begin with? Would it have any effect at
all? At the moment of beauty, I guess it doesn't matter. Perhaps it's
narcissistic to feel any amount of guilt for being able to see a performance
like this from such a close angle. After all, the club wasn't sold out. I
find extreme pleasure in listening to Billy Martin's music, and there's a
certain amount of choice in that. There'll be more where that came from, at
any rate.

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