Live concerts have failed to impress me the way they used to back in my more impressionable youth. This conundrum was highlighted by the long-awaited performance of my all-time favorite, Queens of the Stone Age (Rock the Beach Festival, Helsinki, 2013), which I can only sum up as a phlegmatic let-down. I wonder whether I’ve developed an understated obsession over sound quality, and that listening to studio recordings on a decent sound system has become the only way for me to get proper kicks out of music. Enter Californian group Secret Chiefs 3. After hearing about their upcoming club gig in Helsinki, I went in with trepidation, expecting some cool live renditions that would ultimately fall short when compared to the phenomenal album counterparts. What I did not foresee was a two-hour instrumental onslaught, which I would modestly describe as the most bitchin’ musical experience of my life. Check out the selected tunes below and kick back, while I dish out a couple of non-subjective points as to why a live performance by Secret Chiefs 3 is better than any music you will ever stumble across (no hipster).
Secret Chiefs 3 (affectionately dubbed SC3 from here on) hails from San Francisco, although the music itself is anything but geographically bound. Trey Spruance, founder and guitar player extraordinaire, hires a revolving door of session musicians, resulting in tasty smorgasbords of genre-hopping compositions – much in the spiritual vein of the late, great Frank Zappa. The band’s styles and influences include surf rock, numerous iterations of progressive rock and jazz, spaghetti westerns, Giallo horror films, trash metal, noise music, Iranian classical music, Jewish klezmer madness, Arabian disco and drum ‘n’ bass – just to name a few! Spruance establishes SC3 as an ensemble comprised of seven smaller ‘satellite bands’, each representing a distinct set of sounds and philosophies. Throw some cosmic mysticism and numerological obsessions over medieval diatonic tones into the mix, and you end up with a collective of wacky shamans who can play the crap out of most instruments and movements known in contemporary music.
Back to the actual concert: the band’s arrival on stage was relatively nonchalant, with many of the audience mistaking Trey Spruance and his hooded cohort for roadies in wizard robes. Greetings and introductions were short and to the point (there were none). And then the band started playing, and the fans saw that the music was good. The cover of a 1960 war film theme, “Exodus”, opened things in Morriconesque grandeur, featuring majestic trumpets and guitar riffs that practically screamed for an accompanying visualization of The Man with No Name riding into some Spanish sunset. Things then spiraled into relative weirdness with “Toccata”, a doomsday piece fusing church organs with death metal beats. The following Middle Eastern tunes, “Fast”, “Balance of the 19” and “Tistrya”, demonstrated just how great off-kilter time signatures and syncopation can be at keeping the awful concert dancers at bay. It is also worth mentioning the interludes between songs, which were short and to the point (there were none).
Given that the line-up consisted of just five guys, the multi-instrumental showmanship was humbling: core member Timba Harris defied specialization by transitioning seamlessly between the violin, guitar and trumpet, while Spruance would occasionally spice things up with an electric saz, a funny-looking guitar traditionally featured in Turkish and Iranian folk music. There is the off-chance that keyboardist Matt Lebofsky was pulling a fast one by churning out pre-rendered samples, but Occam’s razor leads us to assume that the talent here simply kills the competition, especially when blasting through the Dadaist complexities of “Danse Macabre”, “Radar” or “Anthropomorphosis: Boxleitner”. After an experimental mid-portion (including an unsettling cover of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” theme), the set would veer back into the territory of Ishraqiyun, i.e. the satellite band focusing on the badass Persian/rock hybrid stuff. The set ended on a glorious high note with groovy snake charmers “The 3 (The Afghan Song)” and “Vajra”, but the ultimate showstopper would precede them in form of “Brazen Serpent”, which can only be described as a 10-minute extinction event with an abundance of progressive insanity and introspective breaks of serenity. After the ashes of the finale settled over the mesmerized audience, the crowd burst into relentless applause, which was eventually rewarded by encores that were short and to the point (there were none).
The concert’s last minute relocation to Ravintola Kuudes Linja in Kallio turned out to be a blessing in disguise; the unassuming venue deserves two thumbs up for delivering some top notch acoustics. Kuudes Linja is undeniably small for acts with larger egos, yet the intimate physical space was ideal for the no-nonsense supergroup epitomized by SC3. The guitars and keyboards were crisp, Toby Driver’s bass was phat, and Kenny Grohowski was given the perfect aural setting to back up his self-imposed title of “ultimate drumming machine”. Kudos also to the unsung sound guy Eppu Helle, who nailed the sound levels of each song, and who was nice enough to provide us obsessed fans with an indispensable tracklisting of the show <3
Music critic Napoléon Bonaparte once said that glory is fleeting, but obscure bands such as Secret Chiefs 3 remain forever close to the heart of all six people who listen to them. And after such a formidable display of live music, I’ll be sure to give any future concerts the benefit of the doubt. Anyone happen to know the next time Cheek is playing in town?
For further reading on SC3’s records, check out Mark Prindle’s vivid reviews here.