Tony Levin’s Stick Men only features three members, but if you were only listening and not watching the group at the Van Dyck on Thursday night you might have been convinced there were more.
It was the strings that did it, as Levin himself joked towards the middle of the set. Kingston resident Levin, best known for his work with King Crimson, played the band’s titular instrument, the Chapman Stick, which features 12 strings covering most of the range that a guitar and bass usually cover, while touch guitarist Mark Reuter played a custom-built, eight-string instrument. With fellow Crimson alum Pat Mastelotto conjuring all kinds of noise on acoustic and electronic drums, the band created a massive wall of complex, orchestrated noise during the first of two shows Thursday evening.
For the most part, Levin and Reuter utilized the tapping technique that the Stick is most known for, allowing them to trade off bass and lead lines, or play both at the same time. The effect was mind-boggling right from the start (which was promptly at 7 — there was a lot of music to cover). Set opener “Nude Ascending Staircase” featured the two “stick men” deftly switching roles throughout the song — while Levin would solo, Reuter took over the bass, though Levin stuck to the bass line for most of the song.
“Hide the Trees” was even more impressive, with the two seemingly conjuring up an army of guitarists and bassists — at times, it was quite challenging to figure out who was doing what.
The band was in great spirits throughout — the soft-spoken Levin gently wisecracked with the audience (”Hold on to your food,” he deadpanned to kick the evening off) and politely introduced each of the primarily instrumental numbers, most of which came from the band’s latest album, “Deep.” All three musicians were grinning ear-to-ear during a cover of Crimson leader Robert Fripp’s snarling “Breathless,” which in this setting took on plenty of fresh new angles.
There was plenty of improvising throughout the pieces, and an entire mid-set piece was completely made up on the spot. “The Van Dyck Improv” as Levin jokingly called it, went through several eerie, almost unsettling changes, finally settling on a groove only to be shattered when the band moved immediately into another “Deep” song, “Horatio.” Later in the set, “Open, Pt. 3” featured a slightly more reined-in improvisation centered around Levin and Mastelotto’s simple, interlocking groove.
The many years these musicians have spent playing together made for some amazing interlocking rhythms, especially on the 10-plus minute tone poem ‘Whale Watch,” appropriately based around Levin’s avid whale-watching. This was only the second time the group performed the piece live, as Levin announced right before, but already it seems to have become the highlight of the band’s show, with a gentle beginning giving way to thundering rhythms (representing the movement of the boat), climaxing in groaning rumbles and squeals from the two stringed instruments that really did sound like whale song.
This epic piece was only matched in intensity by the group’s reimagining of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite,” which was saved for the encore. Once again, the three musicians navigated the suite’s many rhythmic and tonal changes with extreme ease, earning a standing ovation from the full house.