Do Not Miss This Concert: Colin Stetson @ the BCA in Burlington, May 7

by on March 18, 2013

Posted in: Blues, Concert, Eclectic, Jazz, Music

Colin Stetson


In my second semester at Middlebury, I attended the most emotionally intense musical performance I have ever had the good fortune to see. An audience of about 50 stood in a circle in the stark, entirely white main gallery of the Burlington City Arts Center (formerly Firehouse Gallery) on Church Street, watching with widened eyes and slackened jaws as a towering, muscular man played the bass saxophone. If you’ve never seen one — and they’re very uncommon — this is a massive instrument, its brass tubing cumulatively more than twice this especially tall player’s own body length, and to even force enough air through it to produce a sound required a straining effort. But he wasn’t just playing the bass saxophone; by the miracle of circular breathing, he was simultaneously singing into it, wordlessly, producing grotesque squawks and moans that blended uneasily with the reedy, chest-rumbling tones of one of the woodwind family’s deepest instruments. Meanwhile, he was tapping out complex rhythms on the keys and sides of the saxophone and with his toes. The amount of concentration and energy needed to pull off this feat of multitasking caused the man to perspire and eventually brought him to the floor out of exhaustion. This was seriously cathartic stuff for player and spectator alike: the vocalizations communicated pure, unadulterated human agony as the man grew weaker and weaker from the effort of his act of artistic communication. At the end, he just lay on the floor of the gallery, panting, scarlet in the face. Many in the circle were weeping; it took around a minute for us all to realize it was time for applause.  My boyfriend and I drove home in complete silence, and even days later we still had a hard time addressing the concert we’d attended. It was the sort of thing that had been uncomfortably communal at the time and instantly transfigured into a rigidly private  experience in retrospect: the show brought the audience members together in their shared shock and then drove us apart to process the aftereffects in solitude. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Colin Stetson.

Colin Stetson has spent years as the independent music community’s top session saxophonist, contributing to records and live shows by high-profile acts such as Arcade Fire, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, and TV on the Radio, among many others. In 2011, however, he broke out as a solo artist with his second LP on Constellation Records, New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges, a collection of indelibly haunting tracks including vocal collaborations with Laurie Anderson and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden (on a cover of blues standard “Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes,” one of the album’s most emotionally blistering standouts). Integrating blood-chilling vocal techniques from the eeriest strain of old-time American blues into distinctive musical settings borrowing elements of free jazz, post-rock, ambient noise music, late twentieth-century neoclassical, and performance art, the Montreal-based, Michigan-born saxophonist makes music that really does sounds like nothing else out there. If one didn’t know any better, it might not even be possible to identify the source of the dark, alien soundscapes as being one man, playing, singing, and tapping simultaneously on a saxophone mic’d in dozens of places. Without that knowledge, his music is disturbing, beautiful, and bizarre; with it, it becomes a stunning feat of technical mastery. And that’s just on record: live, Stetson is both quasi-spiritual and intensely physical, wavering uncomfortably between the strangely erotic (the way he caresses and grapples with that huge saxophone…) and primal violence. As art, it is powerful, impressive, lovely, and important. You, whoever you are, really should see it.

Lucky for anyone in Vermont this spring — so, many of those reading this post — you’ll have a chance. Stetson returns to the BCA Center on May 7. There’s a cash bar, too! Stetson performs as part of a tour behind his upcoming album, New History Warfare, Vol. 3: To See More Light (out April on Constellation). He’ll be joined by the violinist Sarah Neufeld, a full-time member of Arcade Fire and that Montreal band’s artier instrumental sister group, Bell Orchestre, whose first solo LP is due to be released this year as well. Click here to hear two of her tracks, “Scalpel” and “Stradivarius,” via YouTube. And here’s a Stetson track, The Stars In His Head (Dark Lights Remix). So, SAVE THE DATE. Be there and be prepared.

What: Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld. Where: Burlington City Arts Center, Church Street, Burlington, VT. When: Tuesday, May 7, 2013. Doors at 8:00 PM, show at 8:30 PM. Ends at 11:00 PM. Who: All agesTickets: $12; get them at the wonderful Pure Pop Records in Burlington (where, if you don’t already know, you should be doing ALL your music shopping in Vermont) or at the BCA site, hereRIYL: Blind Willie Johnson; Godspeed You! Black Emperor; Laurie Anderson; Mount Eerie; Steve Reich; Swans. Find out more at: the BCA website.

2 Responses to “Do Not Miss This Concert: Colin Stetson @ the BCA in Burlington, May 7”

  1. Beneep says:

    Just bought a ticket for this. Do you know what role Sarah Neufeld has in the performance? Are they playing together or is she opening?

    • Sam Tolzmann says:

      Neufeld is touring the material from her upcoming solo album as well. I gave her serious short shrift in this article. It’s actually not stated at the BCA website but I’m pretty sure it’s two performances, Neufeld as opening act, since each has solo material to play. That said they may very well chip in on each other’s songs, seeing as they’re used to collaborating (they’ve been in both Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre together since the early ’00s). It’d be interesting if they played together on Stetson’s compositions since his performances have a pretty distinct “macho” energy.

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