Zero, Gramercy Theatre & Grand Central Station, New York City ,4/20-21
The current incarnation of Zero is an on again/off again unit, a collaboration of old friends together for a few nights of fun. The core trio of Greg Anton, Steve Kimock and Martin Fierro is augmented by Liam Hanrahan on bass, John Morgan Kimock on drums and Arnie Green on vocals, along with GD heavy hitters Melvin Seals and Donna Jean Godchaux-Mackay, and all of that virtuosity and shared experience almost guarantees some serious sparkle every night. All that time away from the road also guarantees a certain looseness, not so much in the playing as in the show’s whole tone. The California-casual vibe manifests itself most tangibly between songs, where long, three to five minute pauses of milling around on stage are the order of the evening. The musicians seem to be telling stories, cracking jokes and fidgeting and fiddling with equipment, and at times it’s just so comfortable and calm- like they’re a band from a different era. But all that down time is an easy way to lose an audience’s attention too.
In its first set in New York in a decade, the band featured slew of stand alone numbers including an “Anorexia” opener, “Catalina” and “Merle’s Boogie.” The music was good, even glowing at times, but not really going anywhere. Time and again it was Melvin’s rich organ washes that pushed a jam segment to the next level- his ability to flood the soundscape and simultaneously paint very distinct and playful figures as fills and flourishes has always been impressive. The best jam of the set came, oddly enough, in “Pits of Thunder,” a lyrically hokey song that wasn’t helped any by Arnie’s lackluster vocals. The improv, however, dropped right into a thick, jungly groove, with Kimock on kalimba. Liam rumbled out great bass lines under Martin’s wild, squeaking solo, which gave way a wonderfully noble space jam. It was deeply in the GD vein, a 1990 kind of grandeur that had Martin playing with different shakers as Steve danced rhythmically on the metal keys. When he switched to the hollow body guitar he favored throughout the night, he drove the music low, growling before passing the movement on to Melvin for the finale.
The real meat of the show came with the second set opener, a nearly 45 minute version of the classic “Cole’s Law” > “Tangled Hangers.” Steve was immediately laughing as he noodled and worked his way along the edges of the former, skirting around any direct pathways to the composition. Much more loosely constructed than any SKB version, it had the tone of jazz greats like Wayne Shorter or Herbie Hancock, who have taken their music beyond songs to statements, where the themes are malleable and fluid. After the song coalesced, Melvin took the first lead, playing a very atypical solo, with short, pattering steps rising and spinning and turning back around, rather than his usual broad strides. All the while, Steve was across the stage, lacing himself through all the intricacies, peaking through to the surface here and there.
When he finally took the reigns, the guitarist started way left of the song, farther a field than even his opening musings. He seemed separated from the rest of the movement, but somehow swept across the gulf and was suddenly at the heart of it all, with Martin screaming out a torrent of notes and Greg throwing sticks in the air. Thumping and rolling into “Tangled Hangers”, the band took a turn back towards the jungle, a thick rhythm carrying along a golden saxophone. Steve then ran the movement all the way down to a still space, shifting and opening up a new percussion passage. A dark and scary gauntlet, it had Steve on kalimba again and Martin with shakers and on a pan flute. It stretched on and on, the fingerboard eventually being exchanged for a slide and the fabled White Strat, just the tools to scorch a course through the morass.
The following morning the same line-up played a free set outside Grand Central Station as part of the Earth Day celebrations, but it was like a different band. They were immediately incredibly tight, and bursting with energy. A slow, funky “Watching the River Flow” has slick fills from Martin, leading to a nice solo, but it was Steve who was just beaming. He played a sweet lead early, so sharp and clean, looking right at Donna all the while, and then reprised it with a slide to initiate the climax. He was whipping up a furious cyclone of sound, and kept pushing himself, plateau after plateau- he was laughing wildly and turned bright red- the best solo of the weekend.
The rest of the set was of equal caliber, the band nailing a picture-perfect “Merle’s Boogie,” with Melvin lashing and flashing in fills while Steve laughed across the stage, snapping out his own responses from up on one leg. “Chance in a Million” featured more great guitar, while an uncommon “Me and the Devil” highlighted Melvin’s deadpan vocals. The set closed with a majestic “Gregg’s Eggs,” looming tremendous over the city streets with heavy intro chords and organ. Martin’s lead began with freeform squealing that melted effortlessly into a driving groove, all mastery and virtuosity on display. The sax teased “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” with fat, swollen bass coursing underneath, and then stepped back for yet another stunning deluge from the guitar hero, his shining tone echoing up through the canyon walls of midtown Manhattan.
The group returned for a “Franklin’s Tower” encore, a gem compared to the low-key version from the previous night. Donna was dancing and lightly twirling between the verses she sang so well- her stage presence is so cool and easy, with sliver locks, shades and a leather jacket. It was the perfect cap to a perfect set.