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Monday August 20th, 2007 at Empty Bottle in Chicago, IL
Professor Murder, The Jai Alai Savant, & Waterbabies
Mike Bell-Smith of Professor Murder
Tony Plunkett of Professor Murder
Nash Snyder of The Jai-Alai Savant
[more photos]
[11.6M mp4 video]

Note: I'm afraid I only have time for a quick account. There is simply too much going on to write a long one.

The evening began with rhythmic drumming emanating from a dark stage. Two players sat behind conga drums, feeding off of each other, and seemingly uninterested in the small passive audience. After ten minutes, the players stopped. I can only assume that this meant that the lonely drum circle had sufficiently glorified Luna, thanked Jah for the hemp harvest, or completed some sacred rite taught at Rainbow Gatherings. When the drums went silent, two other gentlemen climbed onto the still-darkened stage, and stood behind laptop computers. The drumming returned, but this time it was accented by computerized blips, squalls, and other assorted (and often grating) sounds. This four piece, creating largely improvised din, is Waterbabies. Although more experimental than anything else, the band would occasionally incorporate disjointed electronic dance beats into the chaos, or outright noise reminiscent of industrial acts such as Crash Worship. After a short 20 or 25 minute set, the band thanked the still-disinterested audience and began to pack up its gear.

Jai-Alai Savant frontman Ralph Darden quickly climbed on stage, and, along with the rest of his band, began to set up. I watched with curiosity as Darden was uncharacteristically dressed in his street clothes. Has he abandoned his flashy all-white suit? After a quick line check, the three members of the band vanished (does the Empty Bottle have a green room?), only to return to the stage a few minutes later in the expected glowing white uniforms. Good, I don't deal with change well.

The Jai-Alai Savant has been covered in Too Much Rock before, so I wont devote too much time to describing the band's sound. Imagine a hectic post-punk dripped in authentic dub. Bassist Nash Snyder plays complex runs with nimble fingers, undulating or marching all the while. Drummer Michael Bravine moves from snappy disco punk to smooth dub. Darden's guitar is thin and wiry with the ability to move from simple ska-styled upstrokes to short bursts of art-punk freak-outs. The band is tight and professional. Darden is a showman, but never panders – even when he announced an impromptu audience dance contest. That sort of audience interaction can be dodgy, but the now-densely packed crowd obliged. The Jai-Alai Savant is doing everything right, and it's only a matter of time before the band grows beyond the reach of the Empty Bottle. That will be a sad day for us all.

The final band of the night, and the capstone of this percussive bill, was Philadelphia's Professor Murder. This four-piece is fronted by Mike Bell-Smith who provides vocals, percussion, dance moves and, more than just occasionally, a gym-coach whistle. He stood in the middle of the Empty Bottle stage behind a wall composed of snare drums, a floor tom, assorted cymbals, blocks and bells, and a small synthesizer. Behind him, drummer Andy Craven played a traditional drum kit that provided a constant disco-punk beat. Jesse Cohen provided electronic percussion, as well as keyboard triggers and loops. As the only member of the band without drumsticks, bassist Tony Plunkett was responsible for more chords and melody than bassists are typically tasked with. Thankfully Plunkett, and the rest of the band, were each up to their tasks.

Musically, the band is marching to the beat of its own drummers; there are no real parallels to draw. Sure, it's post-punk, but it's also electronic, and dancey, and edgy, and IDM. The music isn't as dark as the Daft Punk set, but more reminiscent of Stereo Total minus the kitsch. Although I had no idea what the band might sound like before the show, the audience was obviously primed for the evening's headliner. The first few rows danced fast and furiously in a constant motion style I most associate with ravers. Most were more subdued with their dancing, but all of the audience had at least gotten its sway on.

Professor Murder's set seemed short; the audience was just getting warmed up when the band called it quits. While I was happy to shoot out the door into the cool misty night, DJ team When the Eagle Met the Wolf, implored the audience to stick around for another hour and continue the dance marathon. Although I didn't stick around to find out, I've a feeling the lubricated indie rockers probably stuck around for the supplemental rump shaking.