“It sounds like a man shouting into a hoover bag full of saxophones.” I can’t remember where I read that description of a track of Colin Stetson’s To See More Light album, but it had me gambolling down the record shop. And I wasn’t disappointed. On Stetson’s albums there plenty going on around the fabulous droning repeating sax sounds – all manner of things up to and including gospel choruses which makes for more than just an avant garde curiosity.
Live it’s just Stetson and his saxes – one the size of a small adult. So you wonder whether something will be lost. It’s certainly not the same experience as the records, but it’s not lesser in any way. In fact it’s genuinely awesome to experience. And you do experience rather than just hear it.
The first thing to strike you is the size of the sound. The Scala is a venue that regularly shakes to the sound of the trains passing beneath it. When Stetson kicks off, building a noise like being trapped inside a particularly expressive ship’s foghorn, any train passing underneath would’ve been paid back in spades. Like a 1-man Swans you could feel him through your feet, thrumming your sternum and in the air as you breathed in.
The next thing that gets you is the technique. The first piece starts with the foghorn howl, but as with the others builds into multi-faceted mixture of drone, howls, repetitions and rhythms. As he suddenly introduces a new aspect, various members of the crowd jostle and crane their necks to get a view of how he’s doing it. The positioning of the mikes though is less important though than the concentration and feel. At any one time he can effectively be playing five different parts – from driving percussion of fingers drumming on the taps, though some manner of baseline, a background drone and more of a melody line punctuated with squawks – and hold it all together while maintaining an impressive level of physical noise.
But for all that, for once, the technique on display would be enough to be worth watching on its own, it’s not that which has gathered a hollering, appreciative crowd. You can think up all sorts of amusing descriptions for what he’s doing (at one point it’s difficult to suppress the thought that you were listening to a driving dystopian sci-fi soundtrack played by an extremely irate dinosaur) but it's no novelty act. There is an intense off-kilter humanity to the pieces which would have you spellbound no matter how they were achieved. It’ll be a while before what was played will make its way onto a record. When it gets there it will doubtless be rather different, but the memory of its sheer physical presence will still be lingering.