The Sunday night crowd milled around the room with anticipation seeping out of its pores. Or was that just the musk of the hill dwellers who hadn’t seen a shower in several days? Never the matter. The point is that the vibe was high and the Crazy Horse Saloon felt ripe with possibility as Reed Mathis & Electric Beethoven took the stage on November 27. Despite only playing for a few months, the band had already established a lofty reputation along with an alluring air of mystery. Questions hovered in the ethers. Two hours later we’d be left with the pieces of a puzzle amounting to a far more magnificent picture than even imagined.
Huddled closely like kids ready for story time, Mathis addressed us with the spiritual mystique of a leprechaun Buddha. Knowing what was about to unfold might be more esoteric than the average person could process, he gave us a touchstone by which to refer. He explained that the music was intended to be heard as a repeated mantra with communal healing as the main focus. As the waves of sound bubbled forth, it instantly made sense.
“Beethoven was a shaman,” Mathis later mused. A couple hundred years later, we are fortunate to have another shaman reinterpreting the basis of his inspiration. The phases of the moon t-shirt he wore was even more apropos than he might have realized. Each style of music this band progresses through is akin to a lunar phase. Classical, jazz, funk, rock and EDM are symbiotic entities breathing the same oxygen. Electric Beethoven takes Ludwig’s symphonies as a template, weaving an intricate web of improvisation within every crevice. As far out as it may be, it remains attainable thanks to a perpetual danceability. “When people are dancing, I feel like we’re the greatest band in the world,” Mathis confided after the show.
As someone who fell in love with Reed’s one-of-a-kind playing when he was with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey back in 2002, the most thrilling element about this project is the full circle return to that paradigm. For the last many years, he’s been making his name as a rock bassist and doing so quite admirably. However, Reed playing rock is like Ludwig playing R&B. It’s great and all, but not the best use of his otherworldly talents. Rushes of ecstasy repeatedly pulsed through my body as he tapped in to what I call the “communicating with aliens” tone – a high-pitched melodic effect which goes where no bassist has dared to tread (at least as far as I know). It’s serious enough to solve a quantum physics theorem and playful enough to drum up memories of that time you went to the carnival high on acid.
The other most exciting thing about Electric Beethoven is the fact that this band gives Jay Lane his ultimate platform to shine. He’s been involved in so many illustrious projects like Primus and Further, but I’ve never fully seen what the fuss is all about. As great as this is for the fans, you can tell it’s even better for Jay Lane. At the Crazy Horse he was like a rhythmic swamp creature; defiantly emerging out of the muck and morphing with the jungle. His bare bones kit fed into a caveman modality while the attention to detail was something Ludwig would have approved of. It’s rare that the drummer is the most interesting musician on stage, but you just couldn’t take your eyes, nor ears, off of him. The occasional transition from a jazz-inflected game of Chutes and Ladders into a breakbeat inferno was more graceful than it sounds and as dangerous as you think it might look.
Traveling all the way from the Northeast to join up with the gang, Todd Stoops has to be seen as the wild card of the bunch. He looked like a junior high school science teacher on a weekend hipster sojourn in a royal blue Adidas track jacket. Just like the other guys, he doesn’t have a shred of doubt about his place in this lineup. Stoops knows it’s up to him to drop the electro-funk hammer and he does so at just the right time. His complex synth attack and thoughtful phrasings to his solos set him apart from anyone I’ve heard.
There aren’t many bands out there where the guitarist is the least impactful member. It’s not a knock on Clay Welch. If he wasn’t a bad ass player, he wouldn’t be in this all-star lineup. With this type of music, as with a lot of jazz, the guitar is more important for color and layers than overt “wow” factor. Clay certainly found his spots and laid into it on occasion. Most importantly, he has the right demeanor and intellectual mindset for this cerebral music. You can’t help but appreciate that he’s from Reed’s hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma and connects that thread back to his roots. It will be interesting to see how his role evolves with the band.
Any connoisseur of sonic adventure has to love a band whose music is expressed more so in movements than songs. The opening piece based on Beethoven’s Third Symphony set the tone with, I’m guessing, 20 minutes of “welcome to the brave new world of improvisation.” The second piece of the show, “Awakening of Happiness,” traversed its way through a spectrum of sonic landscapes for upwards of 40 minutes. Watching Reed do his thing and assertively guide his bandmates through the changes is a thing of beauty. Considering how challenging this music is, the attentiveness of the crowd in such a setting was remarkable. The collective feeling of joy inside the Crazy Horse was spilling over the brim. It’s not every day you get to witness something that has never been done before.