(Los Angeles, California) Australian trio The Necks have just completed their first US tour in the band’s 20-year history, offering most of us the first glimpse of the inventive and compelling group in a live setting.
Defining The Necks’ sound on an album is difficult. Generally comprised of a single track and usually consisting only of the trio of Chris Abrahams on piano, Lloyd Swanton on bass, and Tony Buck on drums, it’s an hour of building on a single musical theme, repeating and evolving in the most minute of steps, but imperceptibly changing with each measure until you realize that there has been a complete shift in what you’re hearing. The band defines itself as “trance jazz” which, while fitting for their studio work, is even more apt for their live performances. The real challenge is trying to describe what exactly went on. Simply put, it was Art.
It’s almost pointless to describe the actual notes played, the movements and the shifts because it’s almost incidental. When talking about The Necks, it’s necessary to view them in a completely different context: You’re not going to see a band perform hits and classics — songs you’ve come to know and love. Perhaps this is why they’re often classified as jazz in the same way that Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew is “jazz fusion.” But there is a much deeper aspect to it that keeps any shallow comparison like that inaccurate.
While the band might argue that they’re not “improvising” (as they insisted in our recent interview), it’s clear that they are not playing from memory — they’re playing in and for the moment, and therein lies both the crux and the power of the show. I could toss out a cliché like “they take you on a journey,” but it would be the biggest understatement I have ever made in my life.
So what exactly is a Necks performance like? It starts out slow — almost painfully slow — as each member stands at his instrument with his eyes closed, as if communicating telepathically with the others. Eventually, one of them will start, and will in time be joined by the others. Again, like traditional jazz, they create a framework within which each member has a chance to solo. In a sense, one instrument will take the focus while the others maintain the context. But the sound becomes so complex, the phrases almost lost in the sound that one is almost overwhelmed by the richness of it all. This is probably what Phil Spector was trying to achieve with his “wall of sound,” albeit in a much poppier way. In fact, it becomes so overwhelming, at times, that one almost experiences auditory mirages (did I just hear a woodblock in water?), but without any time to dwell on them as another swell in the music whisks you away.
In a sense, the show is really more of a guided meditation: you’ll find yourself suddenly realizing that your thoughts have been completely adrift, absorbed by the intricacy of the sound yet still entirely focused. It’s an odd sensation to realize one’s mind has been wandering yet to realize it’s been centered on the music the entire time. Perhaps the most startling part of it was realizing how much the piece had changed in a short time. Within 15 minutes, things had become unrecognizable from the previous 15 minutes, but it was so gradual, so subtle that it was completely imperceptible.
Of course, this would all rapidly slip into tedious self-indulgence were it not for the undeniable talent and skill that each member of the trio possesses in their own right. From Bucks’s awe-inspiring stamina on the drums to Abrahams’s dexterity and passion and Swanton’s emotion (was he verging on tears at times?), the band occasionally swayed ever-so-gently in unison, their eyes all closed, as if animated by this same singular force being channeled though them — a complex symbiotic relationship only 20 years of playing together could form.
Suffice it to say that the entire audience was rapt in attention through two pieces, totaling almost two and a half hours, and they would probably happily have sat through another two hours. I can confidently say that the show was an absolute triumph, celebrated with an emphatic standing ovation, and I am eagerly awaiting another US tour (which Mr. Abrahams hinted at).
Photography by Emberly Modine