TCAN, Natick, MA – August 8, 2019
Story, photos, and video by Kelly D
As I watched art-prog trio Stick Men sonically rip up the stage at TCAN, I thought to myself, “Tony Levin is the one-man prog version of the Wrecking Crew.” The legendary troupe of L.A.-area session musicians who played on hundreds of hits in the 1960s and 1970s left an indelible mark on the history of popular music and it’s easy to draw a comparison to Tony Levin, who has humbly performed with dozens of household names from Cher to Warren Zevon, King Crimson to David Bowie, Pink Floyd to Peter Gabriel, just to name a select handful. But that’s not all he’s known for. . .
As it happens, Tony Levin has pioneered the use of a fairly obscure instrument, the Chapman Stick, and with it, has pretty much casually altered the course of popular music from the 1980s till the present. For those who don’t know, the Chapman Stick was invented in the early 1970s and can emulate play bass lines, melody lines, chords, and textures- or a combination of all.
This is where Stick Men come in. It’s the trio of Markus Reuter (on TouchGuitar), Tony Levin on Chapman Stick, and King Crimson’s Pat Mastelotto (on drums and aux percussion) where sheer technicality that is often associated with progressive music gets mixed up with pure joy.
I’ll pause here for a moment to compliment the ambiance of TCAN, aka the Center for the Arts in Natick. The Stick Men concert was my first time there. Not only was the room where the band performed cozy yet spacious at the same time (not a bad seat in the house), the exposed brick walls covered in still lifes of flowers in vases added an industrial-yet-rustic aesthetic. The volunteers and employees were friendly, free street parking was ample, and the neighborhood boasts several restaurants and a brewery. Not too shabby at all!
I’ve seen Stick Men before, in August 2017 up at Higher Ground in Burlington, VT. Mr. Levin himself thanked me for dancing throughout their set when I got my chance to meet him after the show. High praise indeed! I took my sweetheart Stevie to see the Levin Brothers back in March 2019, which was a lovely but decidedly low-key affair. I promised him before the trifecta took the stage at TCAN in Natick that it was going to get loud.
They delivered that promise, and more. Much to the audience’s delight, Tony took the stage with his bandmates and mentioned that since this year is the 50th anniversary of King Crimson’s debut (essentially inventing what we now know as progressive rock with their 1969 album In the Court of the Crimson King), they would be performing more Crimson material than usual. I can assure you, dear reader, that no one was complaining about that.
Over the course of about an hour and a half, the three gentlemen onstage performed six King Crimson-adjacent tunes, a good amount of original pieces, and even a surprise or two. I was not expecting to hear Pink Floyd’s 1987 classic “Learning to Fly,” much less see Tony Levin himself singing it. . . I learned that evening that Tony had performed on A Momentary Lapse of Reason, contributing bass and Chapman Stick lines. So cool! I also didn’t recall seeing Tony sing during the 2017 Stick Men show I saw, so I was heartened that their band appears to be growing in terms of what they want to show us.
The musicianship cannot be overstated. Every man brings his own flair to the stage, and I noticed that two songs in, drummer Pat Mastelotto (no slouch himself, a founding member of Mr. Mister and one of the three current drummers in King Crimson) was pounding his drums so hard he already had to wipe sweat from his face. Markus Reuter, who Pat and Tony noted was born the same year King Crimson’s fifth album Larks’ Tongue in Aspic came out, held down his side of the stage with his Touch Guitar tapping skills and triggering samples via his laptop.
Each band member took turns talking to us and telling us anecdotes about their works. Markus Reuter shared that Tony woke up in the middle of a Berlin winter’s night to write “Schattenhaft” because he didn’t feel like their forthcoming album was entirely finished. Pat Mastelotto revealed that their original “Horatio” was written as intended to be the sort of theme song for an imaginary gangster from the 1920s.
Perhaps my favorite musical moments of the evening were hearing the funky, screechy tune “Sartori in Tangier,” from King Crimson’s 1982 album Beat and the churning, driving “Larks’ Tongue in Aspic, Part Two” from the 1973 album of (almost) the same name. I even got out of my seat and danced to the latter. . . Then, at the very end of the night, my favorite of all the moments of an already special event happened when I got to meet Tony Levin again, thank him for sharing with us his immense prowess and have him receive my praise with his trademark humility, and got Stevie to snap our picture together.
While the Stick Men tour is now over, two-thirds of the band will be out on the road for the last leg of King Crimson’s 50th anniversary tour, beginning in a few weeks. Don’t miss out on seeing these incredible living legends!
- Prog Noir
- Red (King Crimson cover)
- Learning to Fly (Pink Floyd cover)
- Breathless (Robert Fripp cover)
- Hide the Trees
- Swimming in T
- Sartori in Tangier (King Crimson cover)
- Crack in the Sky
- Larks’ Tongue in Aspic, Part Two (King Crimson cover)
- Level Five (King Crimson cover)
Industry (King Crimson cover)