Sometimes appreciation takes the form of disbelief. You know a musical phenomenon from recordings, and you seek it out in person, assuming that you'll be able to better process it. But somehow, it makes even less sense live, and you come away loving and appreciating it—and the musician behind it—all the more.
Over the past two nights, I've seen shows featuring, respectively, two of my favorite living drummers. Friday: Milford Graves, in duo with Joe Lovano at the Stone; Saturday: James "J." Read, with the Alberta metal band Revenge at Saint Vitus. In each case, I felt like I was witnessing the end point of a certain methodology of percussion, the ultimate expression of what a human being interacting with the instrument can accomplish—not just physically, but spiritually. Both performances employed what Morbid Angel guitarist Trey Azagthoth has referred to as "engulfingness," the fact of overwhelming the listener in an attempt to project/engender a feeling in an unusually deep way, almost as if the musician casting spells on the listener.
Friday's show was my third Milford Graves performance this year, and my second in the intimate confines of the Stone. Each of these gigs has been a duo show with a saxophonist: Evan Parker, John Zorn (part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art takeover) and Lovano. This last one was by far the best, in terms of rapport and, I guess I'd say, sheer amount of ground covered. Graves and Lovano dug deep almost immediately; as soon as the performance began, you sensed that each one was delighted by the other, wanted to give his partner all his heart and might, and to help him along to a place he hadn't yet been. To be fair, this sense of spiritual conveyance was stronger in one of the two directions, namely from Graves to Lovano, and I think Lovano would've fully admitted that. At the end of one of what I believe was the first piece, the saxophonist said, to the audience but just as much to himself, "Milford Graves, the greatest musician alive." (It may have been "…the greatest musician on the planet," but it was something with that kind of certainty to it.) I think everyone in the Stone would've agreed with him. I've rarely witnessed such obvious gratitude and reverence—manifested as gleeful ecstasy—as what was radiating from Joe Lovano on Friday night.
After seeing the Evan Parker duo a couple months back, I compared the phenomenon of Milford Graves performing in a small room to a weather event. His technique has the effect of changing the climate of the room, conjuring otherworldly states with sound and vibration. I'm frustrated with my language here, with the way I'm falling back on lofty, abstract description to convey a very tangible sensation. But in a way, that shortcoming on my part is the best tribute I could pay this musician and his art—an admittance that you can't know it any other way than to make a pilgrimage to it, to be in its presence. When watching Graves on Friday, when taking in that worship of wood and metal and hide—I don't want to misquote Professor Graves, but after one piece, he made reference to the negative effect the weather was having on his drum heads ("animal skin" was the phrase he used, I believe)—I found myself thinking of the enormous gulf between knowing a musician's signature sound from recordings and knowing it live, what a chasm there is between those two understandings. I thought about how the divine rumbles of, say, John Bonham and Elvin Jones would only ever be, for me, shadows of their real selves. (I saw Jones live one time, but I wasn't prepared then to really absorb what I was witnessing.) But I know the Milford Graves sound—or at least I can say that I have known it during those moments when I've been in its presence. I don't think it's possible to take an experience like that with you.
You watch the movements—the strange inverted grip Graves favors with his left hand; the way he rests the butt of the stick that strikes the ride cymbal on the floor tom; the way he mutes that cymbal with the shaft of the stick, creating these weird phasing effects—and it doesn't really bring you any closer to assimilating the benevolent barrage you're hearing and, just as importantly, feeling. When Graves plays, you're being, in a sense, battered by sound, but it's a restorative battering—like a particularly forceful, bracing massage. You feel like you're being swooped up in a cyclone, almost discerning its cycles, its near-regularity, but never grasping it—you're chasing after a meter, but as my friend Ben Young likes to put it, you can never quite pinpoint where "1" is. You knew Lovano was right in this place with the audience; the moments when he was playing seemed almost secondary to the moments during which he was silent, simply dancing, almost convulsing along with Graves's torrent. He was caught in that Milford Graves tractor beam, held in that grip of that enormous, polyvalent sound and vibration, soaking up its energy. We know that Graves is really a healer by trade, and when you hear him live, that fact is unimistakable. It's drumming as a gesture of spiritual restoration. We also know of Graves's fondness for hoisting fellow musicians on his back; this is what he does, figuratively, for the audience each time he plays: "I've got this. Let me carry you. Let me take you somewhere."
James Read wants to take you somewhere as well. With Graves, it's waves of love radiating from the kit; with Read it's beams of pure hate. Like pretty much all the projects he's been involved with, his current main outlet, Revenge, revolves around that idea that metal ought to be, first and foremost, an expression of filth, violence, seething rage. All of Revenge's songs sound exactly the same. You listen to them on record, and it's a malicious blurt. I've loved Read in that setting—specifically Revenge's Victory.Intolerance.Mastery LP, and various releases by Axis of Advance and Blood Revolt—but as with Graves, what he projects on the kit isn't something you can really take with you.
At Saint Vitus, Read played a beat-up old double-bass kit, borrowed for the night from the great Jim Roe (a veteran death-metal drummer best known for his work on the classic early Incantation LPs and performing last night with Mausoleum). From the first quick blast of his soundcheck, I knew that I was right to be in the front row. There was something extraordinary emanating from the kit and I wanted to soak it up fully.
Extreme-metal drumming often seems like an entirely different discipline than rock drumming—in a weird way, it can be a much less powerful, less full-body-engagement activity, especially where constant blastbeats are in play. (The classic phenomenon is that you'll see players barely tapping the snare drum in an attempt to reach absurd b.p.m. levels.) This is not the case with Read. You can't see him play and not think of a beast or a whirlwind, some superhuman exertion/expression. You hear his signature style on record—a glorious slopfest marked by supremely hectic blasts; thudding, caveman-style midtempo breakdowns; and these absurdly blurred, audacious tom rolls, which sound like a drum-machine malfunctioning—and you wonder if its bestial power is the result of some trick of production. You don't understand how any human could play that way, could interact with a drum kit to produce such disorientation, such savagery.
But Read is 100% the real thing. At Saint Vitus, between songs, I heard one guy in the front row go, "Fuck Neil Peart; he's the guy," or somesuch, pointing at Read. A comment like that is obviously a pointless apples vs. oranges non-comparison, but I knew exactly what the dude meant. Seeing Read is, like seeing Graves, an experience of disbelief. And as with Graves, Read is most definitely playing lead drums; in Revenge, there are two other musicians onstage—players stage-named Vermin on guitar-vocals and Haasiophis on bass-vocals—and what they do is impressive. (Vermin's rabidly trilling solos are a frequent perverse delight.) But you're at a Revenge show to see and feel the fury of James Read. Few players ride the line of chaos and control like this guy. Sometimes, his barrage, the insane jumble of toms and double-kicks, sounds completely arrhythmic—not to make too tidy a comparison, but at the speeds and density levels Read favors, what he does can sound strangely similar to what we think of as the free-jazz percussion tradition that Graves epitomizes.
Whereas Graves wants to buoy his audience, though, Read wants to flatten them. His projects all have this heavy militaristic bent; the man performs wearing camo pants, after all. The intent could not be any more obvious, but as anyone who's ever sat behind a kit can tell you, sheer aggression isn't going to get you very far. J. Read likes to frame what he does as anti-technique—see this amazing interview: "Ive [sic] been attacking the drum kit for over 10 years because drums are the most crushing instrument," etc.—but like Graves, this musician has obviously figured out a way to break through some sort of physical and sonic barrier when it comes to playing the instrument. The feeling I get from his playing is similar to the one that Zach Hill's drumming on the early Hella recordings gives me, that of a player who's almost angry at the idea that four-limb percussion has a threshold, this sense of "Why can't I just make more sound come out of this thing we call a drum set," and willing that more-ness to be so.
Revenge frames itself as anti-fun, anti-exhilaration, anti-uplift, and that's all good and well, but to me, great drumming is always a celebratory event. I'm sure J. Read would hate to hear me say this, but I find what he does just as inspiring as Graves's healing barrage. There is such ghoulish theater to Read's performance style—the way he headbangs violently as he plays, or fixes his eerie, unblinking stare on the audience during the slow parts—but he is, in the end, a part of the great tradition of percussive artists who take us elsewhere when they play, who heal us through extreme devotion and will to this primal art. Like Graves's, Read's technique is absolutely his own—I was struck, for one, by how close by he positions the ride cymbal, so that his entire arm is basically covering its surface and he's striking the outer edge. I would absolutely love to sit behind him as he plays, to really see what's going on with those vomitous rolls of his. But I sense that, even if I could closely monitor everything that was going on visually, I'd still come away baffled.
With players like this, the quantifiable fact of their performances is only ever a small portion of the story. You've been in the presence of this elemental phenomenon, the fact of these musicians interacting with their instrument, and for that time, maybe, you understood, you felt the totality of their expression and made some tenuous connection between what they were doing and how it made you feel. But you can't bottle that sensation. You come away with this sort of dumbfounded reverence, almost as if you were leaving a magic show. But unlike with magic, where you know there's some fundamental illusion at play, there's something comforting about the fact that yes, that drumming was in fact real—those performers are using the same humble materials you have access to.
I'm tempted to call these experiences in the presences of masters like Graves and Read transportive, but really, while they are happening, they do not take you elsewhere. Rather they make you feel more there, right in that place where you are, than you ever have. It's not a sensation of escaping one's immediate circumstance; it's a sensation of knowing it completely, and being blissfully happy that you're in the presence of an artist who could help you achieve that knowingness. I envy those that got to hear my late drumming heroes live—the Bonhams, the Jones and Williamses—but on the flip side, I'm so grateful for these audiences with the ones who still walk the earth. These poets of the go-for-broke now moment. These madmen who, like a blacksmith heating metal, supercharge the present so that they can make it malleable, bend it to their will. Whatever the emotional objective—be it love in Graves's case or hate in Read's—the point is the drive behind it. Take the now; make it yours.