STS9, Red Rocks, Morrison, CO, 9/7-8
Upon entering the naturally-sculpted amphitheater, the first sight of the two colossal formations that rise up above the earth’s surface like giants is enough to wow any visitor, long before any band may be scheduled to appear on stage. Such was the setting for a two-night run by Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre in lovely Morrison. This beauty can assuredly enhance any the performance of any band, yet had an undeniable impact on STS9. Drawing near-sold out crowds both nights, the band put forth a pair of concerts that reflected an ability to rise to the sights.
Night one opened up on the mellow side, with the bass-dominated intro that shifted into the creepy keyboards of “This, Us,” perhaps as a testament and reminder to all the fans of their perception towards the “this” of the concert experience, and the very “us” that is the band, who are as much active participants as providers of its sound. The pace picked up somewhat with “Tooth,” a bit more so with the airy, hip-hop-influenced “F-Word,” and then assuredly with the 12-minute-long odyssey “Really Wut?”
STS9 consists of Hunter Brown (guitars, laptop, midi keyboard), David Murphy (bass, laptop, midi keyboard), Jefree Lerner (percussion, laptop, handsonic), David Phipps (keyboards, laptop) and Zack Velmer (drums). Throughout the course of a concert, all members of the band, save Velmer, will alternate from their primary instruments to their electronic counterparts, creating a barrage of sounds that seamlessly mesh and interweave.
One of the very beacons of this auditory experimentation came with “Tokyo,” the closing song of the first set. Introducing a foundation created from a looped sample and drum beat, an additional layer of sound was added every two meters or so: congas, then guitar, more looped samples, while each of the integrated elements ascended in a uniformly harmonious direction, yielding an inevitable sound explosion.
Highlights of the second set included “Arigato,” a funky hip-hop number that utilized a continuous sample of a man speaking in Japanese, “Aimlessly,” a song navigated by Brown’s guitar through a series of peaks and valleys, and “Abcees,” a recent addition to the Tribe’s repertoire that has a reggae feel to it. The first night’s encore offered a two-song crowd-pleaser of “Circus,” a soothing atmospheric dose of solace, and “Tap-In,” another one of the band’s rocking powerhouses.
Night two opened with “Breathe In,” a rare gem played seldom by the band, and almost never to open a set, let alone a show. Split up into two major movements, the song first builds on a lightning drumbeat into what seem like murky waters, until the whirlwind finally calms and what remains is a calm conga beat overlaid with stellar keyboard work by Phipps and the repeated words of two heavenly voices.“Instantly” soon moved from some standard jamming to a laptop battle between Brown and Murphy. The guitarist and bassist fired the words “every time” and “instantly” back-and-forth at each other for most of the song, at one point getting into a full-fledged exchange that sounded like a game of “Simon” played at light speed.
Though about a month early, “Rent” transported the audience to what felt like a monster mash on Halloween, complete with eerie keyboards and a spooky guitar riff. “Lo Swaga,” like a number of other songs, began with a basic canvas of sound, and was continuously enhanced as the song progressed, until it finally returned right to its origin in a cyclical-type movement.
Both shows also featured two live painters stationed on either end of the stage, meticulously crafting while STS9 served as the inspirational. The artists, Kris Davidson and J Garcia, are staunch proponents of the fusion of music and art as a doubly-powered medium, just like Sound Tribe. Lighting is also a major part of the STS9 experience, and complex designs have been created by the band’s good friend Saxton for most of their career.
Rounding out the two-night run was an encore that began softly with “Life’s Sweet Breath,” an older tune that has been brought back in recent months. The song allowed Brown to shine on guitar in the closest thing to a solo, as he established the launching pad that soon sent the crowd into the ether with “Orbital.” If “Life’s Sweet Breath” exemplifies Sound Tribe’s ability to still play a relaxing tune devoid of many additional effects, “Orbital” is its direct antipode. Sounds emerge from every direction like approaching meteors in a space-bound vessel, dodging each one with blasts of sonorous harmony. About five minutes into the 13-minute long journey, it felt as if the vessel had reached equilibrium and a breath of air could be taken, but this only proved momentary, as the pace quickly became galactic once again.
By song’s end, the crowd appeared uncertain as to whether or not the interplanetary space vehicle (the name of one of Sound Tribe’s albums) ever did make that descent back into the atmosphere or if it remained in the outer depths of space. For many, it didn’t matter: two nights of STS9 at Red Rocks was enough to charge them with enough energy for the upcoming weeks, or, at least until the next concert.