by Christian Pezzino
Jon “the Barber” Gutwillig’s side project Kick Rocks returned to the Blockley last Friday night to kick-off their three night run, joined by Mike Greenfield (drums) of Lotus, Clay Parnell (bass) of Brothers Past and welcoming in the funk/jazz fusion keyboardist Brian Marsella formerly of the now defunct jam band Caveman.
Like the myriad facets of minerals and gemstones, Kick Rocks proves difficult to define. While all four members have their oars sunk deep into the current of improvisational live electronic dance music, each paddle down different streams. Together, their whirlpool of styles converge to birth a new beast, unrestricted by genre, as mercurial as the tides, never harboring long in the comforts of single composition, their ship sailing wherever the winds of trance-fusion happen to blow.
Barber told the crowd that tonight would be anti-Kick Rocks due to previous rehearsals, but went on to say that “organized music to some degree is for the birds, and I think that’s why I’ve spent my entire life rallying against that right there, ’cause there’s something great about wingin’ it in front of tons of people who just want you to wing it!”
Many of the jams began with a simple groove, a few notes played repeatedly in succession, before slowly settling into themes lasting upwards of fifteen minutes, often seguing into new songs or different keys. Even on his first outing, Marsella made himself right at home during a heavily funk-infused opener, his keys bursting forth into an uplifting, funk-jazz assemblage of conscious key mashing whilst Barber led his own solo in response. Marsella’s funkiness lent the band a refreshing sound compared to their previous appearance when keyboardist Eli Winderman of Dopapod graced the Blockley’s stage with the band last December. Barber largely remained within “the pocket,” taking his time to thoughtfully construct jams and lead the music forward. Besides a frenetic cover of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved,” and their own song “Yeah Fresh,” the show mainly consisted of improv with minimal pre-fabricated song structure. Each instrument etched out its own place, gently flowing in time to an invisible pulse naturally building, measure by measure, into monstrous peaks, occasionally lurid, often jubilant, yet always feverish and refreshing.
All bands who rely heavily on improvisation encounter peaks and valleys along the way, and Kick Rocks is no different. Even as the band regrouped during a lull, fiddling with notes and working out the kinks as they settled into a new theme, Greenfield’s tight drumming held everything together. If all else failed, his cymbals splashing over tranquil four-four dance beats became nearly hypnotic, especially as Marsella’s spacey futuristic synth patches washed over the crowd like a calm tide. Barber tip-toed up and down his fretboard, plinking notes here, striking chords there, which at first could be mistaken for uncoordinated noodling, but rather became the foundations for an exploratory jam. At this point, bassist Clay Parnell would lock into a buttery smooth bassline as Marsella struck synth patches of gold and ivory against Barber’s patiently searching guitar, each member feeding off of each other’s energy, waiting to catch the current.
And when the band would lock-in, everyone could feel the stir of excitement in the air, like a storm growing steadily on the horizon, the crowd enraptured by the uncertainty of the moment, simmering, steaming, boiling over the edge until the entire dance floor submitted entirely to the music and raged like it was their day job. Fans of improv crave this uncertainty, because when a jam pays off, it’s like hitting triple 7s at the slots—and everyone left the show feeling as if they hit the jackpot.