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Aristocrats concert review - August issue of Palm Beach Arts Paper

A longtime bastion for touring blues artists, and more recently for ones playing funk, the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton recently instituted a welcomed series of notable jazz/fusion acts. Those include bands led by drummer Billy Cobham (on Sept. 22), guitarist Oz Noy (Nov. 5), and drummer Simon Phillips (March 26, 2020).
Jump-starting the procession on August 15 was a sold-out show by the trio The Aristocrats (guitarist Guthrie Govan, bassist Bryan Beller, and drummer Marco Minnemann). A veritable United Nations of fusion that formed in 2011, the British Govan, American Beller and German Minnemann followed an enjoyable one-hour opening appearance by California-based instrumental trio the Travis Larson Band (with guitarist Larson, bassist Jennifer Young, and drummer Dale Moon).
The Aristocrats then delivered a blazing set of largely-improvised instrumental mayhem for the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. The show occurred on the 50th anniversary of the first day of Woodstock, and the headliners practically played as many notes and beats over two-plus hours as the entire Woodstock lineup played over three days.
Their first selection, Minnemann's "Blues F___ers" from the trio's self-titled 2011 debut, set the tone to expect the unexpected. Accelerated sections showcased the drummer's incredible footwork on his double-kick pedals; a slow blues ending was included for the tongue-in-cheek quotient, and Beller comically led the crowd in bullfight cheers in-between, cuing it by raising and lowering his hand.
"Thank you so much, Southeast Florida," Beller said afterward. "This is the first time we've ever played down here, and it's great to be at the Funky Biscuit for a sold-out show. Is it cool if we play some tunes from our new album, [i]You Know What...?[i]?"
The positive response from the musician-filled, largely-male crowd was predictably audible. The latest album's opening track, another F-bomb pun called "D-Grade F___ Movie Jam," was actually inspired by a Kentucky music critic's description of The Aristocrats' sound. Only partially accurate, the highly-improvised, serpentining cut by Beller included intermittent cowbell parts by Minnemann -- with the cowbell being hand-held by a roadie named Gino, whose name the crowd chanted in approval.
Govan's "Spanish Eddie" followed, showcasing the guitarist's impressive technique and versatility in sections ranging from tranquil to thunderous. Minnemann was again dizzying; the ambidextrous drummer playing 16th notes with his foot on his hi-hat cymbals amid various other time signatures, then leading the trio into an improvised swing midsection before more hummingbird double-kick mania. The drummer's "When We All Come Together" blended disparate elements of Irish and bluegrass music within a jig feel that included a section in the complex, Frank Zappa-inspired time signature of 23/16.
Beller then verbally introduced his [i]You Know What...?[i] composition "The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde." Inspired by his bass equipment being stolen from his storage space, the arresting piece had a happier ending than the story that inspired it. Beller explained how he'd tracked down a larcenous couple responsible for the theft online, traced them to a warehouse seven miles away and waited for them to arrive, calling the police from the parking lot -- only to find that his gear was no longer among their stolen items.
"I think they're still in jail, though," he added as a kicker afterward.
Throughout the night, the bassist provided the glue that bonded his mercurial bandmates, downshifting his complex bass lines whenever necessary to avoid complete note-and-beat overkill. On Minnemann's "Get It Like That," from the debut CD, the bassist's funk-inspired bass line anchored Govan's chicken picking, wah wah washes, and quotes of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" and Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall." The drummer's unaccompanied middle solo eclipsed five minutes and boggled minds, including sections played only on his cymbals and even drumstick-on-drumstick, before he and Beller upped the unpredictability factor further by coaxing squawks out of rubber chickens over the microphones.
"We've been playing a lot of notes tonight," said Beller afterward, channeling Captain Obvious, "but is it okay if we chill out and play a sad song?"
"Last Orders," Govan's finale on [i]You Know What...?[i], featured he and Beller playing while seated. The slow, 6/8-timed piece showcased a restrained Minnemann literally taking a back seat to Beller's melodic soloing and the soulful tones of Govan. The guitarist, part [i]Spinal Tap[i]; part Monty Python, politely introduced his bizarre composition "Kentucky Meat Shower" from the band's 2015 release [i]Tres Caballeros[i]. His speaking voice as welcoming as his incredible playing, Govan led the trio from a slow, welcoming intro to a marauding finale.
The Aristocrats' spoken introductions to certain tunes were often as entertaining as the music itself. Minnemann's "Desert Tornado," from the 2013 release [i]Culture Clash[i], included an explanation of how the German drummer didn't take a tornado warning seriously enough shortly after relocating to California, instead continuing his recording session despite the repeated warnings before finally choosing to drive away from the threat. His guidance through time signatures including 7/8, along with the swirling patterns by Govan and Beller, approximated the ensuing mayhem.
Closing pieces featured The Aristocrats' whisper-to-scream dynamics and surf music elements, including on Beller's debut CD composition "Flatlands." The track embodied everything about the limitless trio: Govan's underrated guitar heroics, the bassist's creative, bottom-heavy steadiness, and Minnemann's tornado-like drumming steering everyone into and out of danger.
In a world of processed, manufactured, cookie-cutter music, The Aristocrats are a welcome 180-degree turn, combining elements of every style and sub-genre. Their controlled chaos involves great risk, yet results in the reward of rare, high-brow improvisation with maximum unpredictability.

Aristocrats story - August issue of Palm Beach Arts Paper

Music has a history of artists deserving of wider recognition -- especially instrumentalists -- and especially now, in the modern era of TV shows that only hype singers and dancers toward their 15 minutes of fame. Los Angeles-based bassist Bryan Beller is on the current short list of those most deserving musicians.
The 48-year-old native of Charlottesville, VA has gained some degree of acclaim by playing with virtuoso guitarists, from the underrated fusion of former Frank Zappa band member Mike Keneally, and Zappa's son Dweezil, to the largely-instrumental metal of Joe Satriani and another Zappa band alum, Steve Vai. But Beller also has four far-reaching solo efforts since 2003, including his dense new double-CD studio opus, [i]Scenes From the Flood[i], due for release next month.
And since 2011, his instrumental trio The Aristocrats (www.the-aristocrats-band.com), with British guitarist Guthrie Govan and German drummer Marco Minnemann, has defied categories with a largely-improvised mix of jazz/fusion, funk, metal, country and practically every other style imaginable. Think of a mix of Return To Forever, King Crimson, the Dixie Dregs, Brand X and Rage Against the Machine, and you're in the ballpark.
Guthrie has prodigious technique, and would probably be more of a guitar hero stateside if he wasn't still based in England; Minnemann's boundless chops can include separate, Buddy Rich-style solos on drums, cymbals, and stick-on-stick. The group has a new fourth studio album, [i]You Know What...?[i], and performs at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton on August 15.
"We'll definitely play portions of the new album," Beller says by phone from Baker City, OR in-between Aristocrats west coast tour stops in early July. "But we'll go back through the catalog and play a few select older numbers and fan favorites as well. It'll definitely be an evening of Aristocratic musical mayhem."
Such a "rowdy democracy of musicianship," as Govan has dubbed The Aristocrats, is the trio the versatile Beller has prepared for since starting his recording career 25 years ago. Few other bassists could be creative enough to navigate the serpentining, genre-defiant catalog of Keneally, then turn around to hold down the bottom on Satriani's nuevo-metal musings. And the trio setting, in which every musician has to listen and know when to pass the baton and when to run with it, is probably the most musically democratic.
The Aristocrats suitably formed in an improvised setting when Beller and Minnemann were paired up to play with fusion guitar icon Greg Howe at the 2011 Anaheim Bass Bash at the Winter NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show. When Howe couldn't make the performance, Govan (Asia, GPS) became an 11th-hour replacement after an impressed Beller viewed a video of him on a fan's recommendation. The trio had only one rehearsal, yet put on a spontaneous performance that wowed both the crowd and the participants.
"The chemistry was so great," says Govan, "that when we came offstage, we all said to each other, 'This is working. We should record this.'"
[i]You Know What...?[i] features everything from marauding metal ("Terrible Lizard") to a waltzing ballad ("Last Orders") and a bluegrass-inspired piece, "When We All Come Together." The feel is at once loose and tongue-in-cheek, yet air-tight in its delivery by the three musicians, each a multi-instrumentalist.
"When you listen to 'Last Orders,' you might think I'd written it, because it has such an intricate bass part," Beller says. "But that's one of Guthrie's tunes. He'd even sent me a demo recording with him playing that very same bass part."
[i]Scenes From the Flood[i], on the other hand, explores deeper themes, mostly instrumentally, with 26 musicians including guitarists Satriani, Keneally, Govan, John Petrucci, Janet Feder, Rick Musallam and Griff Peters, plus another current vastly-underrated musician, drummer Joe Travers. The feels range from techno to to folk; classical to metal, yet involve more space and texture than the comparatively-rowdy Aristocrats. Beller even adds vocals to three explorative cuts, "Everything and Nothing," "Army of the Black Rectangles," and "Angles & Exits." It's the first release under Beller's name since the brilliant 2011 concert document [i]Wednesday Night Live[i], and his first studio effort since [i]Thanks in Advance[i] from 2008.
"It's been 11 years since I did a studio album," he says, "and I felt like I had a lot to say. The Aristocrats are a setting where we can have fun and play a lot of notes, but my own material tends to be more introspective and serious. I wanted to write an album that involved a lot of tension and release, based upon the concept of intention meeting reality."
After moving as a child to Westfield, NJ and growing up there, Beller proceeded to the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston, where intention definitely met reality before he graduated in 1992. His previous studies included five years of piano lessons starting at age 8, plus 18 months of jazz theory lessons as a teenager.
"I had pretty much taught myself how to play bass," he says, "but once I got to Berklee, I got my ass kicked."
The school is renowned for humbling up-and-coming players as such, but also for fortuitous introductions. Berklee was where Beller met Travers, who was working with the band Z, led by Frank Zappa's sons Dweezil and vocalist Ahmet. Another important Z ingredient was Keneally, who would become the conduit that most of Beller's associations have since passed through.
Beller has been Keneally's bassist for the bulk of the latter's 25-plus-year solo recording career, appearing on gems like [i]Boil That Dust Speck[i], [i]Half Alive in Hollywood[i], [i]Sluggo![i], [i]Guitar Therapy Live[i], [i]Wine and Pickles[i], and [i]Bakin' at the Potato[i]. Part Zappa and Yes, part Beatles and Todd Rundgren, Keneally is an inimitable singing, multi-instrumental blend of progressive rock, pop, and jazz/fusion. His association led to Minnemann, now Beller's rhythm section mate with both The Aristocrats and Satriani.
"I first met Marco through Mike," Beller says. "Mike wanted to play a pick-up gig in Europe, and he knew about Marco, who played the hell out of some very daunting Keneally material. And I'm like, 'Who is this guy?' He'd listened to the tunes, written his own charts, and was reading them right down. Marco was well-known in Europe then, but I wasn't familiar with him. He's since moved to California, and is definitely better-known here now. Mike was also the guy who recommended me to Satriani."
Recent Satriani recordings and tours have been rounded out by the backing trio of Keneally (doubling on guitar and keyboards), Beller and Minnemann. Keneally's most recent endeavor is as part of a forthcoming Frank Zappa (1940-1993) hologram tour that will also feature Travers and fellow former Zappa band members like guitarist Ray White, bassist Scott Thunes, keyboardist Robert Martin and percussionist Ed Mann.
"Scott Thunes is probably the bassist I most try to emulate through re-harmonization," says Beller, whose unique choice of notes may be what most differentiates him from other bassists. "His playing with Zappa taught me to intellectually approach chord structures in different ways."
Other Beller bass influences include Motown icon James Jamerson, jazz/fusion stalwarts Jaco Pastorius and John Patitucci, and rock and funk players John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Tim Commerford (Rage Against the Machine). With such a broad range of influences, Beller is uniquely able to provide a bottom-heavy cushion for vocalists and soloists, then turn around and trade phrases with those soloists with equal aplomb. His Jamerson-inspired tone is intermittently meaty, buttery or biting, and he blends the unorthodox note choices of Thunes and Jones, the slapping of Flea, the grit of Commerford, and the fluidity of Pastorius and Patitucci.
Thunes played with Keneally in Zappa's final touring band in the late 1980s, and both musicians influenced Beller toward what he calls the "Americana fusion" path his career would become. It wasn't what he expected.
"As a bassist, you want to support the band and not abuse the privilege," Beller says. "I was ready to be a groove player who served songs, never thinking I'd be playing music like this. But a trio like the Aristocrats is about pushing boundaries, so it's a great way for a bassist to open up and stretch. And I did a lot of trio playing with Mike and a few different drummers along the way, which made me up my game as far as what a bassist could contribute. So there's something else to thank Keneally for."

West Palm Beach Auditorium concerts story - July issue of Palm Beach Arts Paper

To paraphrase Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant's line from "Stairway To Heaven" in the film [i]The Song Remains the Same[i], "Does anybody remember 'The Leaky Teepee?'"
If you recognize that nickname, you're probably old enough to have attended events at the venue formerly officially known as the West Palm Beach Auditorium. Located at 1610 Palm Beach Lakes Blvd., it started construction in 1965, and the round structure would eventually feature circus presentations, high school graduations, and professional sporting events like soccer, basketball, ice hockey, roller hockey, and wrestling.
But the rain-challenged, slope-roofed, 5,000-seat auditorium was probably best-known for presenting concerts from its inception until nearly 21 years ago, when it became the West Palm Beach Christian Convention Center. It's since become primarily used by Jehovah's Witnesses.
Talk about a role reversal. In the first few years after starting to stage concerts in 1968, according to www.setlist.fm -- which chronicles most, though not all, of the auditorium's concert presentations -- its roster had included The Temptations, Grand Funk Railroad, Jethro Tull, Chicago, Jerry Lee Lewis, Deep Purple, Buddy Miles, Glen Campbell, Freddie King, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Yes. A Facebook group page, "I Saw That Band at the West Palm Beach Civic Auditorium," also recalls some of the civics-testing activities there.
In 1973, future stadium rockers Aerosmith made an appearance. Another Boston-spawned act, the J. Geils Band, staged its first of several blazing performances there. British progressive rock icons King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer each took the stage, as did Johnny Winter And, the Texas blues/rock quartet also featuring second guitarist/vocalist Rick Derringer. And The Eagles -- on an early rung of the ladder toward becoming one of the biggest bands in the world while touring in support of their second album, [i]Desperado[i] -- played to a less-than-capacity crowd.
The following year, American acts from ahead-of-their-time Oakland, CA-based funk/rock act Sly & the Family Stone to Texas roots-rock trio ZZ Top to a cartoon-ish, fledgling New York group called KISS played the auditorium. The Brits included blues/rock guitar star Robin Trower and heavy metal pioneers and auditorium frequenters Black Sabbath. Singer Ozzy Osbourne, who'd co-written a song with the band called "Fairies Wear Boots," sang while wearing boots up to his knees, and police officers made arrests of unsuspecting pot smokers by descending upon them every time they were illuminated by someone taking a flash photo of the group.
"I have so many memories of attending concerts at the auditorium," says West Palm Beach-based musicologist Mike McLaren, editor/publisher of the [i]West Palm Tribune[i] in the early 2000s. "I saw a lot of great bands, from AC/DC to ZZ Top. The first concert I saw there was Sly & the Family Stone in 1974. Tickets were $4.50. After that show, I was hooked, and tried to attend every concert I could there. It was a terrific time to be a young music fan in West Palm Beach."
In 1975, there were shows by Genesis, Uriah Heep, and Ike & Tina Turner, the latter featuring an announcement from the stage that the nearly 20-year-old war in Vietnam had officially come to an end that night. The remainder of the 1970s featured Canadian progressive rock trio Rush, Las Vegas icon Elvis Presley (only six months before his death in 1977), rising star Billy Joel, pop duo Hall & Oates, and future stadium rockers Van Halen. Another such act, Australia-based AC/DC, bravely featured dangerous, scene-stealing opener Mother's Finest -- an Atlanta-based funk/rock sextet that would eventually reach stardom in Europe but never quite achieve that pinnacle in the United States.
"That's when I first saw Mother's Finest live, and they were great," says West Palm Beach resident Ron DeSaram, a lead guitarist and bassist in multiple Palm Beach County bands. "I saw so many shows at the auditorium during that era that they blur together. AC/DC, Rush, Black Sabbath, ZZ Top, Uriah Heep, Foghat, REO Speedwagon, Montrose, Black Oak Arkansas, Peter Frampton, Steve Marriott after Humble Pie broke up, the J. Geils Band with Styx opening for them, and Blue Oyster Cult with Nazareth opening."
The late '70s also featured a jazz/fusion festival with artists from venerable pianist Eubie Blake (1887-1983) to keyboard wizard Herbie Hancock, and a performance by Sea Level, the jazzy side group formed by Allman Brothers Band personnel Chuck Leavell (keyboards), Jaimoe (drums) and Lamar Williams (bass).
As a new decade dawned, 1980 featured everything from shock-rocker Alice Cooper to Georgia-spawned, University of Miami-trained fusion act the Dixie Dregs. British rock quartet Foghat had already put on multiple memorable auditorium performances, but Sept. 25, 1980 proved not to be one of them. Unfortunately for the band, their show was on the same day that the death of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham was announced. Foghat, particularly drummer Roger Earl, seemed affected and played sloppily.
The early to mid-'80s were hit-and-miss. Worthy rock acts (Cheap Trick, U2, Tom Petty, Grateful Dead), soulful performers (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles), and country artists (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings) were contrasted by fading rockers with local family-and-friend ties (Ted Nugent), future beer distributors (Jimmy Buffett), and small screen-inspired stars (Bon Jovi). Indeed, MTV's presence invaded the "Leaky Teepee" as much as it did the '80s themselves. Does anybody remember the 1982 double-bill there of Flock of Seagulls and the Go Go's?
In 1985, the venue's star cycle included the Beach Boys, Heart, Tears For Fears, and the country pairing of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.
"When I saw Dolly Parton at the auditorium, I was able to walk past her, just a few feet away," says Lisa Moss, a resource specialist at the help line 211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast. "And she looked straight at me and smiled as she sang. It's one of my favorite memories."
Before disparate artists including Luther Vandross, The Pretenders, Iggy Pop and Metallica closed out the '80s, there were even separate hip-hop performances by Def Jam recording label mates Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys at the auditorium. With the debauchery described by members of the latter New York City trio in last year's autobiographical [i]Beastie Boys Book[i], the venue eventually turning into the West Palm Beach Christian Convention Center may have been required for atonement.
A 1990 concert by British rockers The Cult jump-started the auditorium's final decade. That show's opening act was Bonham, led by drummer Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin's legendary drummer, who'd died nearly 10 years earlier (likely helping to cause Foghat's distracted performance at the venue that night). Yet the 1970s era of premium auditorium concerts, which had slowed during the '80s, became even more intermittent. Bob Dylan and Santana were a marquee double-bill in 1993, and ageless 86-year-old country star Willie Nelson put on a memorable performance there that year at age 60.
"Nelson's power has always been his ability to understate a song while getting the most out of it," wrote [i]Sun-Sentinel[i] entertainment writer Chauncey Mabe in his concert review, "and he shows he has not lost it."
Nineteen-ninety-five became memorable because of performances by Phish, Green Day, and Primus. The latter was partially so for the wrong reasons. After New York metal quartet Helmet hyped the crowd with a raucous opening set, Primus had to deal with the aftermath. Forty minutes into the San Francisco trio's presentation of its inimitable, staccato funk-rock tunes, bassist/vocalist Les Claypool got tired of being pelted by objects thrown by fools down front, threatening to end the show if he got hit once more. He was, and they walked off.
The auditorium's occasional jazz presentations included a mid-'90s show by heralded guitarist/vocalist George Benson. The opening act was the self-titled trio led by New York City-based guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, now a traditional jazz star as a solo artist and member of the trio led by keyboardist Dr. Lonnie Smith (who'd recorded and toured with Benson in the 1960s). Kreisberg was a music student at the University of Miami at the time, along with trio mates Javier Carrion (bass) and Vince Verderame (drums).
"I'd always loved George's playing," Kreisberg says, "ever since the [i]It's Uptown[i] and [i]George Benson Cookbook[i] albums he recorded with Lonnie. It was a thrill to play the auditorium and open for him, but we were bummed because we didn't get to meet or hang with him then. That had to wait until years later."
The writing was on the leaky walls as the '90s wound down. After a December 1997 metal show featuring Anthrax and Pantera nearly crumbled those walls, British pop group Oasis lowered the decibels by nearly half in February of 1998. When Nashville-based Christian rock act Jars of Clay closed 1998 that December, it signaled a sacred shift.
After a 30-year run of far more secular "Leaky Teepee" performances, the sounds of the West Palm Beach Christian Convention Center during the 20-plus years since have definitely not remained the same.