There are decent rock shows, where the bands are solid, the venue’s sound quality is at a good level, and the audience is appreciative. And then every so often there’s an event, some random evening, a moment captured in time and space, when the planets align and something quite magical happens. I suppose in this case there were two such evenings, back to back, as Zoë Keating and Walter Sickert and his ever-enlightening Army Of Broken Toys managed to sell out two shows at what’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite venues to truly appreciate fine music in, Cafe 939. Last Saturday night, it was a potent combination of sophisticated artists, exquisite venue with perfect sound and ambiance, and the audience? Well, put it this way: it was the sort of crowd that made it difficult to ascertain where the spectators ended and The Army of Toys’ Bunny Collective began. Everyone and everything intermingled, boundaries melted away, and we were all performers and performance.
Walter Sickert and The Army of Broken Toys
While I’ve seen Mr. Walter Sickert and his delightful cacophony of Broken Toys on numerous occasions, nothing prepared me for their jaw-dropping, brain-melting fury of a set. Holy shitstorm, are they getting good! Musicians at the peak of their powers, and all that. They treated us to two new compositions to wrap our heads around – “Soldier’s Song” and the awesome, low-down “Devil In The Details.” Brief but breathless, the delicious onslaught included a shredding version of Johnny Cash’s “Sam Hall”, with Rachel Jayson tearing it up on her viola, bow hairs (or whatever they’re called) in disarray. A full complement of Bunnies ran amuk and spread havoc in and around the packed floor, and the faithful chanted along to Toys favorites “Ghostbusters” and that Billboard chart-topper from the Victorian Era, “Off With Her Head!!!”
It’s really quite shocking what Zoë Keating can do with a cello (no no, get your mind out of the gutter!). To the uninitiated, a solo cello performance might seem like it would be tiresome and tedious, but there is nothing solitary about Zoë and her cello when she begins to play. By means of a pedal controlled laptop and her cello – I’m convinced, one of the loveliest instruments on the planet – she conjures a string quartet. Sometimes several at once. And a percussionist. It’s downright bizarre… and beautiful.
A classically-trained cellist, she dabbled in computer software and played cello in rock bands, until she decided to combine her two loves to create her unique soundscapes. She’s performed in venues as diverse as technology conferences, museums, and rock clubs; has contributed to soundtracks and has worked with artists from the Ballet de la Generalitat de Valencia to Pomplamoose, Mark Isham, and Amanda Palmer.
Between her inventive and compelling compositions, her technological savvy, and performing prowess, she is truly remarkable. Both visually and aurally striking, she draws you in to her enchanting world, and it’s surprising how versatile the cello is, and how varied the sounds she coaxes from it.
She was warm and engaging between pieces, chatting with the audience throughout, sharing the challenges of being a brand new mom who happens to be on a club tour, having to sneak into venues because her son is, as it so happens, not yet of drinking age. And she spoke of her performing reticence, especially when it came to well-known classical pieces, because they are so exact and precise, and “everyone knows how they’re supposed to sound”. After explaining that she felt far more comfortable when performing in an orchestra than playing solo, she went on to perform her one “cover” of the evening, Beethoven, creating for her accompaniment an entire orchestra… of cellos. Having built up the piece with that introduction, her laptop, behaving very human at that moment, missed its cue. Undaunted, she tapped a few keys and began again, observing that one couldn’t pull that off very well in a formal concert hall (“ah, let’s start that one over, guys”), but the audience didn’t mind whatsoever, and barely noticed, as we were all by that time completely entranced and deep under her spell.
Her latest recording is the absolutely breathtaking Into The Trees.