Moon Hooch brings an odd timewarp to Gabe’s Iowa City

I was first introduced to Moon Hooch through their album Red Sky, released this summer, and was so enthralled by the experience of being gripped by each song that it required a few listens to realize that the entire band consisted of two saxophones and a drummer. Hearing that they were set to play Gabe’s, I anticipated that everything alive and vibrant in the album would become even more intense when performed live.

Honeycomb jams with Mike Wilbur from Moon Hooch. See full gallery below. -- photo by Zak Neumann
Honeycomb jams with Mike Wilbur from Moon Hooch. See full gallery below. — photo by Zak Neumann

Although I missed the local opener, Dishwater Blonde, I arrived in time to hear Honeycomb, who took the stage and started to beatbox beneath a jazz score. I realized, quickly, that I was about to see a freestyle rap show (which I’d never seen), and also that the pairing of a rapper with a jazz-rock trio made a certain kind of sense, given the amount of improvisation that both forms of art performance require. Honeycomb danced as he produced beats vocally. I was impressed with his ability to make beats until, after I could not figure out how he was keeping time with loops, I asked and was told that every sound he made was done live. At that point, I was awed: I had heard of Tuvan throat singing and had been impressed with Bjork’s Medulla, but had never seen anything similar performed live.

Honeycomb has a masterful and uncanny ability to reproduce a full drum and bass DJ set, complete with drops, bass and beats — and to do them in a way that is simultaneous and spontaneous. Once I understand the full extent of the performance, I could do no more than sit back and marvel. The rapper Shawn Burn joined him for a few songs, and watching as the flow of instrumental and spoken raps wove together I understood much more of the pleasure and artistry of hip-hop music than I had known before.

As with many human productions, the joy of performance comes from the marriage of a mastery of the material (here, especially, Honeycomb’s ability to modulate his voice to mimic beats and sounds with an almost mechanical production) and a ballet of different parts coming together to make a spontaneous whole. For me, the artistic genius that explodes in performance is even more inspiring than the physical genius that justifies the proliferation of televised sporting events (although human bodies in athletic pursuits are also shown as capable of both strength and grace, an innate attunement to a dynamic, changing context).

Honeycomb’s last song brought up two-thirds of Moon Hooch, saxophone and drum, for a jam with Burns. Honeycomb’s menacing bass sounds exploded over the more even tempo of the drum, allowing the shrieks of the saxophone to float over the sound of syllables spitting out. It was one of the most innovative expressions of masterful creativity I have witnessed.

Moon Hooch provided two hours of music after Honeycomb, and I was riveted throughout almost the entire set. The concept of each song starts simply: The two horns begin a dialogue backed by the drum before they take turns playing solos — often, the solos were accompanied by a keyboard bass that added a dirty fuzz to the sound, creating the illusion that one was at a dance party held in a slightly different universe. Each player switched from the tenor to the alto to the baritone to the bass saxophone, interspersed with the keyboard bass, cheeks puffed wide due to the effort to expel sound through the chosen device, revealing a deep intimacy with the instrument in hand. Occasionally, there were vocal lines: in song form, these were an interesting distraction from the more pleasant sound of the saxophones coming together and moving apart as they perpetuated a productive dialogue, almost combat, that would break apart before fusing again in a core melody which generally introduced each of the songs.

The speed of the performance — each song seeming faster than what they had recorded on the album — drove the intensity, moving everyone in the room to physically interpret the sounds as dance. One sax would offer a repetitive groove, making space for the other to provide an explosion of sound, articulated through rapidly changing notes that would flutter and melt into a stream of sound. Sometimes the songs would seem to disintegrate into almost pure chaos, backed by the thunder of their excellent drummer, before reforming into the familiar melody that had allowed the song to introduce itself initially for the listener.

Sometimes, especially when the baritone sax was employed, one could sense something seething beneath the sounds of the band, something almost sinister starting to seep through as the drums would pound, insistently, and the tenor sax would screech some sort of warning. A foreboding gloom would start to develop, almost ominous, before, in a sudden shift, the band would return to a more upbeat and perhaps traditional jazz saxophone duet. Watching them play live, moving back and forth, stretching and crouching, continuing to breathe life into the notes they produced, reminded me that making music is as physically as it is mentally and emotionally draining. Each note, no matter how quickly played, is earned.

The golden interludes of the tenor sax grew more important as the show continued. Its place provided the audience the sonic equivalent of the sun bursting through the clouds prior to the thunder of a storm. The logic of each melody, repeated through different horns at different times, created an arc that the audience was able to follow (as we might a narrative in a film) before disintegrating, and then resurrecting once again. At times, the flutters of the saxophone sighing and breathing, occasionally through reverb, recreated something like a noir landscape from an ’80s movie over the techno beats and dirty bass of a 21st century scene — it was an odd timewarp produced by musicians who seemed too young to fully grasp the genius of the weird tapestry they were creating.

They played with a combination of the familiar (introducing each song) and surprise, which highlighted the warring sounds and tones that so smoothly and indistinguishably wove together as though issued from a single entity. As was true of Honeycomb, the sounds would be used to set up a sense of space that each would slide into before leaving, on occasion, time for the drum to enter. The solos in this way seemed to blaze new possible trails forward into the logic of each song, precise and intrepid, before disintegrating back into a cacophony filled with frenzied horns fighting against the slowing of drum and bass before releasing in a culmination that introduced the initial melodies once more.

The least successful moments were when they attempted to integrate almost faux metal vocals or hip hop into the band. These seemed like forced moments, unlike the natural, fluid way that they would otherwise perform together. It worked in the performance only inasmuch as once both played the sax again one felt again the magic of the more authentic mode of musical production.

Overall, it was stunning to witness an almost all-instrumental show where one in no way missed lyrics or guitar as the narrative or imagist thread of the song. The tones and sounds were as fully expressive in their way as vocals could be. The band introduced the heart and rage and passion and synergy of the human race pulsing and throbbing in harmony with an expansive sound that insistently led onward and forward.

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