Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Unknown Pleasures

Real Book Fake Book
Plush, 1/18

Truly polished, original bands with superior talent don't play free Monday night shows in most other cities. Loving Austin's oversupplied, cutthroat music market takes something of a leap in perspective -- it's certainly an environment where each band has to work for every listener it wins. New arrivals who feel particularly starved for immediate attention are doing themselves a disservice twice over by not drinking deep of the "competition." They can first benefit from gaining better intelligence about the clubs worth playing and how bands that are successful market and merchandise themselves. And perhaps more importantly, every musician needs to be inspired and challenged by other players constantly.

So there were several cool community elements to this show at Plush on Monday. It was cool to see Jason from Squidbucket out supporting a band that despite a very different sound has a similar appeal to anyone fascinated by musicians of genius technical ability. Giant Steps Productions, who book Mondays at Plush and other nights all over, are doing a fine job of creating a brand name that doubles as a seal of quality. I've been to several of their shows now and each time I've seen a lineup of bands constructed with foresight and marketing savvy. The bands seem genuinely excited to be playing together, as opposed to struggling to remember each others' names. And decent crowds seem to come early and stay late for these shows. With many of the clubs in the neighborhood putting less than full effort into their scheduling, it's good to be aware as a musician and as a music fan which bookers go the extra mile.

But then how about the band? I wish I could think of more ornate things to say about Real Book Fake Book since they had me utterly hooked even from across the street as we approached the club. But their music is so original and so commendably out of time (by which I mean that more so than nearly any other Austin original group, they sound like they could be from any place or any time after the mid-70's) that it's hard to find useful comparisons. Here is a band that presents absolutely nothing more than the essentials to get their point across, because any frills would simply obscure their main idea. Most bands need some external trappings to get audiences onto their wavelength. Sometimes it's just as important for the self-conception of the band to write lyrics, or wear costumes, or to employ smoke machines that make them feel more original and more powerful than they really are as it is to play well.

Real Book Fake Book are in the minority of bands in Austin and bands everywhere because they simply don't need any packaging of any kind. They're cool because they can play, beautifully, as a duo sounding more melodically and harmonically full than many acts with three times the personnel. Eric Reyes' keyboard playing is so fluent and assured that you don't have to be any kind of prog-rocker to simply bask in the sheer skill of the man. Many good Austin musicians of all kinds of genres incorporate elements of jazz, classical, and world into their rock and roll, but Reyes separates himself with the level of clarity of his playing. It's not easy to allude to Joe Zawinul, Bach, Kraftwerk, and Sergio Mendes all in a single original piece, but Reyes does so, one-handed, usually while playing a totally rhythmically independent bassline equally perfectly with the other hand. Yet the music isn't schizophrenic or introverted or inscrutable, it's something you can (and absolutely should) dance to frenetically.

You don't have to be a scholar to recognize all of the different threads with which Eric and drummer brother Mike are playing. One of the most fun things about the band is the way they make their inspirations plain. They play so well that they're clearly never copying. They hear different music and interpret it confidently. Their songs take in elements like spy movie soundtracks, surf rock, and a very particular vintage of 70's synthesizer instrumentals, but with a constant element of rapid development and efficiency (the drumming plays a major role here) that's part purist hardcore and part postmodern. Their name is misleading, in that they don't play jazz standards of the kind usually featured in Real Book products. But it does have a certain resonance with their style. Here are musicians of vast talent sharpening their approach by using only the bare essentials to make each song memorable and distinctive. Their songs require a little bit too much pure skill to ever make the rounds as standards -- no pickup band could ever do these themes justice. But what they do have going for them is a near-universal appeal. If you like to see good music played in varying but accessible styles by people who are exceptional at it, this is a band to see.

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