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Published: 2011/04/02
by Sam Davis

Surprise Me Mr. Davis, Bell House, Brooklyn, NY – 3/23

On a cold, rainy night in the industrial boondocks of Gowanas, Surprise Me Mr. Davis could be found making its second appearance at Brooklyn’s Bell House. Nestled among desolate warehouses, the small venue appears like a small patch of paradise, its dim glow radiating onto the lifeless streets. But inside, a distinct feeling of intimacy ran through the crowd of devoted fans—all of whom had braved the elements to witness one of the jam scene’s most promising acts, and one of its emerging supergroups.

And so as the night began, the band emerged on stage with a “wheel of destiny” in tow. The wheel, seemingly a relic from a travelling carnival or a vaudeville performance from a forgotten era, was blank at the start of the night. But following the opener “Everything Must Go,” Nathan Moore appealed to the audience for suggestions, scrawling those that he saw fit into the empty spaces. Before long, a selection of the fans’ most desired “themes” became possibilities, separated only by metal prongs and chance.

The first of these themes came to life when Moore gave the wheel its initial spin, landing on “Marco Solo.” One by one, the musicians cleared the stage and left the keyboardist to conjure up one of his signature effect-driven sonic concoctions. This continued for several minutes before the rest of the band rejoined Benevento, eventually leading the improv into “If You Knew.”

The next theme selected was “Change Instruments,” one that saw Benevento move to drums, Moore to piano, Brad Barr to bass and Marc Friedman to guitar with Andrew Barr beat-boxing atop. The altered lineup then took on a version of “Someday Maybe Someday” that saw Friedman and Brad Barr exchanging solos on each other’s respective instruments.

At no point during the night did the music suffer as a result of the gimmick. Instead, the various formats injected the songs with a fresh sound that only served to add to the experience. Interspersing the “wheel of destiny” into the setlist, the band rotated between the “themes” and the conventional setlist format. This allowed for rare moments, such as Brad Barr’s stunning solo performance of “Maria la O” or the spontaneous composition (“Spinning that Wheel”), resulting from the “Make Up a Song” theme.

But Highlight moments also took place without the aid of the wheel. Several patches of heavy Slip-inspired jamming materialized throughout the show, specifically during the combination of “No Rest for the Wicked” into “The Garden” into “Rise & Shine.” At one point, Brad Barr could be seen holding his guitar above the drum kit, while his brother drummed away on the guitar strings. Augmented by Benevento’s thick washes of psychedelic sounds, the jams took on a collective feel with no single member emerging as the leader.

As the night progressed, and the themes narrowed to just a few, the wheel was spun once more. This time, landing on “A Cappella,” a theme the band chose to ignore. Instead, a daring fan reached onto the stage, physically pushing the wheel to point to the most anticipated theme of the night, “The Slip.” And sure enough, the trio consisting of Marc Friedman, Andrew and Brad Barr emerged for an encore rendition of “Children of December.” Midway through, Benevento and Moore joined in, eventually closing out the show with an A Cappella version of “When the Crow Flies.”

By the end of the night, every person in attendance was thanking themselves for braving the rain, sleet and snow to witness a truly special and unique performance. And as we exited the venue back into the desolate streets, the brutal weather was a mere afterthought to the show we had just witnessed.

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