Less cowbell, please

Last night, I was one of the 500 or so audience members at Lee's Palace for a show by The Ex, a great Dutch punk/jazz/noise band, with local creative music notables The Swyves opening up. If was a fun show, and congratulations are due to Jonny Bunce (and the Music Gallery) and Ron Gaskin (and Rough Idea) for making it happen. The Swyves kicked off the evening with a high-energy set featuring interesting compositions from Jay Hay, explosive solos from each of the band members (Jay and Jeremy Strachan on saxophones and bass clarinet, Aaron Lumley on bass and Dan Gaucher on drums), and interesting interplay between free and structured sections. The Ex did not disappoint; they tore up the stage with their own undefinable brand of music (is it jazz? Is it funk? Is it punk?), and had along with them a pretty impressive horn section (Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson on saxes, Roy Paci on trumpet and Wolter Wierbos on trombone), who enhanced each tune with brassy shots, acrobatic solos and random noise.

Or, at least, I think that's what happened. Because I have to say, for all of the sound being produced on stage, I had a hard time hearing anything. What I think was happening was this:

What I mostly heard, was this:

Now. Before I go any further, let me say this: my live sound production experience is limited to the occasional small jazz combo concert in Walter Hall as a student at the University of Toronto, and the occasional futzing with a sound board at various big band shows. Having produced three big band albums, I know a bit more about post-production sound, but still, anything beyond where to plug in the cable is, well, a bit beyond me.

All that being said, I have a lot of trouble understanding the sound production at last night's show. Does the kick drum need to be amplified to such a level that my clothing moves each time the drummer kicks?

The Swyves are, essentially, an acoustic band: two saxes, acoustic bass, drums. I've seen the group play live with no amplification whatsoever. Sure, it was a much smaller room, but there is a long way between an acoustic setting and having all of the microphones turned up to 11. In fact, I could barely hear Aaron's bass at all - which is too bad, because it looked like he was working pretty hard. The melodies (which I enjoyed!) all came through okay, but once the improvising started, it was difficult to tell what exactly was going on - any sort of nuance was lost. The Ex is a different animal altogether: three electric guitars plus drum kit, along with four acoustic horns. Here again, I know the horn players are all very good, and they certainly seemed to be pressing valves, moving slides and biting reeds, but I could barely hear them over the white noise of the guitars and the ridiculous amplification of the drums. (I saw The Ex, with Wolter, at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam last December and the sound was much, much better...)

I don't hang out much in dance and/or rock clubs, but the few times I have been, I've always wondered why it was necessary to amplify the sound such a point that it took a day for my ears to get back to normal. The same could be said of the sound last night: some people came prepared with earplugs; many others resorted to sticking bits of napkins or kleenex into their ears. Is it not conceivable that the music would sound just as good, if not better, at a slightly lower volume, with a better mix?

Okay, time to wrap up this rant. Let me clearly say this: if I had been behind the sound board last night, the sound would have been awful. I'm not claiming to know how to do this. However, I've experienced a lot of great sound production in a lot of challenging spaces, so I know it's possible. I should also say that for the most part, everyone seemed to be enjoying him or herself last night, so maybe I just need to get over it and stick foam in my ears. That's just not my idea of a good time, and it's too bad that the true artistry of the musicians on stage last night was lost (I felt) somewhere between 10 and 11 on the volume dial.


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