Let the people listen: The Necks

Liam Donohoe went to a concert and had a ball

On Saturday night, I had the pleasure of attending the final show of The Necks’ Australian tour at the Camelot Lounge in Marrickville. Not even the annoying dining table configuration, complete with disappointing view obstructions, could dampen my experience of what the New Yorker once called “the greatest trio on earth”.

The experimental jazz group approached their two sets as they have every other in their 21 years together: with no clear idea about what to play, guided in equal measure by their ears, technical prowess, and imagination. Last night’s manifestation of this truly free jazz attitude alluded to the band’s usual minimalist influences, combining subtle note addition, phase looping of ostinati, and gradual layering with the anarchy of their Jazz roots and tonal explorations of their Krautrock indulgences.

The first piece began in a way fans of The Necks have grown accustomed to; with pianist Chris Abrahams tinkering until a few motifs and melodies emerged from the improvisation. The slow drone of guitarist Lloyd Swanton’s double bass eventually gave rise to a texturally thick exploration, combining  moments of dreamy euphoria with stabs of cultish, frenetic repetition. Throughout the song, I couldn’t help but think back on the first time I heard about The Necks, courtesy of my year 10 percussion teacher. Despite the Camelot’s distracting assortment of kitsch decorations, I quickly found myself in the very same surreal fugue-state he had described to me, their transitions between quite distinct musical ideas so gradual as to evade notice. At times the sound was so layered that it seemed as if more than 3 voices were being used.

The second piece highlighted the group’s musical chops. Swanton commenced with a technically demanding improvisation, his playing growing more enthused as Abrahams and drummer Tony Buck joined in accompaniment. Buck’s consideration for tone was apparent in his unconventional stroke types and constant switching between felt mallet head and wooden stick butt. As Swanton started to get busier, with more runs up and down the fingerboard, Abrahams increasingly filled out the sound with a dissonant harmonic background. In those few instances where there was a sense of pulse, Buck’s polyrhythmic playing, which often involved each limb playing in different meters and tempos, ensured it was appropriately muddled. The piece would eventually culminate in a dense cacophony; motifs metastasised into fragments that would occasionally emerge out of Abrahams’ rapid, largely chromatic arpeggiations.

Once silence had resumed there was a palpable sense that something important had just happened, the audience grappling with the performance’s profundity as much as its unresolved tension. Even now, a part of me hopes that Buck will emerge somewhere in my travels to let loose with crazy fills, an act of catharsis that might purge the suspense he engendered. And while I would have liked for their improvisations to incorporate more elements from their Krautrock influences, as in my favourite album 2005’s The Chemist, I was neither surprised nor disappointed by its absence. Nevertheless, it was a transcendent experience delivered by a group famous for providing transcendent experiences.