Photos by Kelsey Winterkorn
The last time Sound Tribe Sector 9 made it to the Bay Area they delivered a four-night run at The Fillmore in San Francisco. This time the group, which is based in Santa Cruz, by way of Atlanta, delivered a single show at Oakland’s beautiful Fox Theater.
As the band came out so did their live painters, Jason Garcia, and Kris Davidson, who posted up on either side of the stage. As bookends, who painted throughout the show, they helped frame STS9.
Opening with a crowd pleaser “ABCees,” keyboard player David Phipps blended progressively ambient melodies as the song built slowly but with a pronounced intensity. Upon reaching a crescendo, the entire band let loose and flew into similar territories. It was definitely a quick way to get the crowd’s attention, but as with the second song, “Lo Swaga,” some potential was lost behind layers of synthesizers without enough structure to hold it together.
Perhaps there was a technical problem with the drums and bass as about forty-five minutes into the night, the sound as a whole stepped up a notch or two. This coincided with the group’s segue from “Empires” into “The New Soma.” After a long spacey opening with synth and keyboards melding over each other, drummer Zach Velmer tore things wide open while the bass blared throughout the entire theater. With dozens of LED panels set up behind the band and towers of lights on top of the regular overhead lighting rig accentuating his efforts, guitarist Hunter Brown owned the ending of this song as he belted out highly distorted guitar riffs, crisp yet so full that the room was vibrating with excitement.
Letting go of this momentum the show fell into a brief lull, where the music was a bit too loose and ill-defined. STS9 sounds their best when they have all parts playing equal roles. There were times in the evening when the keys or the synths would get too heavy in the mix and there was not enough bass and rhythm to back it up. But these moments were very short lived.
“Circus,” a light melodic song restored the momentum and brought smiles from the crowd. Here the group moved from calypso-influenced island fare, through a remarkably porous and linear bassline laid down by David Murphy and into an all-out collective expression of livetronica.
“Arigato” came next and opening with Hunter on midi, percussionist Lerner rocking the drums and Phipps on keyboard, it was the quintessential electronic jam. Then, just as the crowd let out a collective sigh, Hunter picked up the guitar, Murphy distorted and pounded his bass and “Arigato” exploded. This was the beginning of the highpoint of the evening which continued from “Peaceblaster 68” into “Kamuy” (where Jeffree Lerner nailed his opening percussive solo) and on through the aptly-named set-closer, “Unquestionable Supremacy.”
Coming out to encore, STS9 played a solid twenty minutes if not longer. Opening with the high driven “Beyond Right Now,” keyboardist David Phipps and the bassist Murphy went back and forth, layering and then playing off each other in a friendly match of one-upmanship. Zoning into a very well laid out “STS9,” guitarist Brown rolled jazzy notes over a synth-heavy keyboard background, while Murphy slapped at the bass momentarily to good effect. This then segued into “Open E” where the crowd erupted in response to Hunter’s opening heavy guitar riffs an the band departed on a high note after a performance that had lasted nearly two and a half hours.
The show left us dazed and confused. There was not a single song off the newly-released Ad Explorata and it seemed like it took a few songs to get the kinks out of the machine. But once it was moving, it moved, blasting a beautifully remodeled vaudevillian theater into the future and leaving all of us fans wishing that there was more than just one show this time.