Polyrhythmics & Monophonics 10.31.15

Nectar Lounge
Seattle, WA

Words By Coleman Schwartz
Photos By Scott Shrader (J. Scott Shrader Photography)

This Halloween celebration was a highly anticipated event for many Seattle residents. As patrons arrived to the venue on Saturday, the costume game was extremely impressive. Monsanto Claus, the Whipsnake backpack, and of course the Monopoly man (Monophonics and Polyrhythmics, get it?) made appearances. The second night of the run saw the order flipped, with local band the Polyrhythmics headlining this time. This order brilliantly allowed Monophonics to play to the sold-out venue at its most crowded, and those who only attended the second night still got a chance to see the full gamut of what the San Francisco band had to offer.

The band took the stage in costume as Devo, with yellow coveralls and red, terraced energy domes on their heads. The set went down in similar fashion to the previous evening, with a few notable changes. One difference was the cover of Devo’s “Whip It Good,” which drove the audience nuts. People began shouting for it as soon as they came onstage, but they kept us waiting for it through most of their set. Additionally, the Polyrhythmics’ Bloom was invited to sit-in and engaged in a guitar battle with McDonald that was nothing short of remarkable. Bloom was not wearing a costume at the time, and Finnigan gave him some grief about it, asking what he was supposed to be. Bloom responded with the zinger, “I was supposed to be a member of Monophonics.”

The band delivered the same phenomenal stage presence, but I was a bit disappointed not to see the setlist mixed up more on the second night of their two-night run. Knowing that they have four amazing albums, it was clearly not an issue of the band not being talented enough or having enough material to do so. I believe they just wanted to make sure to play their most impressive material each night to help establish a solid Seattle fan base. This is something they certainly succeeded at. Their set the first evening was so good that I had no problem watching most of the songs for a second time. It can be even more fun seeing songs for the second time, as you are more familiar and better able to dance to them. I would have felt awful for my second-night only friends if they were deprived of hearing such wonderful songs as “Promises,” “Lying Eyes,” and You Are So Good to Me.”

The Polyrhythmics came onstage for their headlining evening wearing the best group costume I saw all weekend. Grant Schroff dressed as “Suge White,” a mashup costume involving a Snow White dress, a gold chain, a headband and of course, a full beard. The seven remaining members of the band each donned a different colored sweater, a large black belt and long white beards as the seven dwarfs. They stood onstage for a long time, taking in the beauty of a sold out crowd in their home venue. When they at last began, Gray jokingly played through the first bars of “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” by Edvard Grieg. After a second, Bloom joined in, and the rest of the band followed as they played a brilliant rendition of the entire song. This was particularly appropriate to their costume choice as this song has been used in a number of Disney classic movies. Things returned to Polyrhythmics-normal as they followed with “The Itis,” an outstanding number that does a great job of highlighting every single band member at once. Songs like this remind me of how lucky I am to see all eight of these guys play on the same stage, because I would be quite happy watching any one of them do a solo set. “Chingador” really got the crowd moving around as Gray laid the bass intro down thick, then allowed the horns to absolutely take over as a nasty, dark groove built behind them. Morning’s vibrato skills on the trumpet were again on display during his solo. The song closed with some interesting, funky interplay between Bloom and the entire horn section.

The band then paused to introduce a new tune called “Dragon Lotion.” As much as the Polyrhythmics are known for their odd song titles, this one really threw me for a loop. One day, I am sure they will explain the reasoning behind that name at a show, and I can only hope to be in attendance to find out. I recall this song having a fantastically funky guitar riff from Bloom, and serving a somewhat analogous role in the set to “Crippled Crabs” the night before. This was their second debut in a row that delved deeply into funk rock territory, which was awesome to see and heavily appreciated by the crowd. The next song, “Stinky Finger,” featured some great flute work from Brown. The most impressive part of that was how well he played in spite of his fake beard getting in his way. Eventually he lowered the moustache portion down below his mouth to make things easier. Another holiday setlist surprise followed in “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” This J. S. Bach cover starts off with an eerie organ part that Spicer absolutely nailed. As the full band joined in, each member did his part to cultivate a sound that was honestly terrifying.

Again, the band returned to their normal catalog, this time to the tune “Papusa Strut.” The intro to this song features some of my favorite of Brown’s flute work over a solid bassline from Gray. As the rest of the band joins the mix, the flute helps the arrangement to seemingly flutter around the room. After a few minutes, Brown switched back to sax and the band entered full-on crush mode. Morning put down his trumpet and picked up wood blocks, which served as the perfect accent to Schroff and Bello chugging along, keeping the dancefloor packed out and extremely active. “Lord of the Fries” came next, a song about how terrible it is to sit next to someone eating fries who won’t share. This sultry, Latin-infused groove (thank Bello and Bloom for that) is almost hypnotizing, which is probably about how you would feel as you watched the person next to you consume the fries and dreamed of eating them yourself.

Next up was “Before 4 After Four,” a Polyrhythmics tune I had yet to hear live. It did not disappoint in any way. This song features one of their most percussive grooves of all, with Bello playing with the intensity of a wild antelope. After some extensive exploration on the main theme and a wonderful trumpet solo from Morning, the entire band left the stage except for Schroff and Bello. They teamed up for one of my favorite drum solos I have seen in recent memory, and it drove the crowd wild. Drums solos have a reputation as driving off casual fans, but this one was exceptionally engaging and seemed to get the whole room even more into the show than they had been already. The rest of the band returned and acknowledged their talented rhythm section before completing the song.

They then invited McDonald from Monophonics up to play guitar on “Skin the Fat.” This tune is usually a stomping ground for Bloom to flex his guitar muscle, and lent itself excellently to a guitar battle. Bloom and McDonald zealously traded licks and one-upped each other while the rest of the band tastefully grooved behind. It is so great to see a “horn-driven” funk band operate in this mode and I thought it did a great job of showcasing the band’s versatility. Even after seeing them many times, I still feel like they are actively pushing into new sonic territory at every show. This only continued as McDonald left the stage and the band launched into the title track of their forthcoming album, “Octagon.” This is very possibly my favorite song in their catalog, featuring a long, slow buildup of tension that resolves itself in the most epic manner possible, an absolute explosion by the horn section, particularly Clark on trombone.

The band next thwarted my plans for a trip away from the rail to get some fresh air by launching into a ripping cover of “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter. Preparing all three of these new covers for such a large band had to be no easy task, and they executed it masterfully. This song sounded as authentic as Phish’s notorious version, bolstered by outstanding work from the horn section. Afterwards, they paused to welcome Lindgren back to the stage for a second consecutive night. The dual-trombone version of “Wood Head” that followed was nothing short of phenomenal. “Fair Weather Fiends,” “Shadow Lines,” and “Bobo” closed out the set on a high note. “Bobo” started out with percussive, staccato guitar work from Bloom interplaying with Gray’s expressive bass work over top of the Schroff and Bello’s unstoppable groove. The moment where the horns come in is practically ecstatic, and the crowd was unable to contain themselves.

The band left the stage and Nectar Longue went nuts. If the band had decided not to encore, I fear that an actual riot could have gone on. However, the Polyrhythmics are consummate professionals and would not have allowed that to happen. Not only did they encore, but they started it off by playing “Musicawi Silt.” This has been described by Bloom as “the song we pump in our van together while we are on our way to Nectar Longue, if we want to rock a really hot show there.” This cover was originally performed by Walias Band, an Ethiopian jazz/funk group, and was further popularized in the funk/soul community by the Daktaris. The Polyrhythmics completely annihilated the best version of this song I have ever seen them play, leaving no doubt that they had in fact listened to it in their van on the way over.

As if this wouldn’t have been a sufficient encore, the band next invited all of Monophonics up to the stage for one final tune. This song was one that most of the crowd was familiar with, “I Put a Spell On You,” originally by American R&B artist Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, but further popularized by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Since the Polyrhythmics are an instrumental group, that left none other than Kelly Finnigan to handle vocal duties, much to the crowd’s delight. The two bands combined to make this song completely their own, with Finnigan belting out the words in his own modified timing as Spicer could only tower over him from behind, triumphantly pumping both of his fists in the air in time. If you were performing next to someone who seemed to ooze soul in this manner, you would have done the same thing. Heroic moments like this are what takes a good show and turns it into a transcendent one. After the performance concluded at nearly 2 am, all 14 performers left the stage and came outside to meet with their adoring fans. Halloween at Nectar Lounge this year was unquestionably a treat, and I am already looking forward to my next chances to see these two wonderful bands.

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