by Geno Thackara
“Hey, want to spend a late worknight at a tiny South Philly bar to see three people who’ve never played as a trio before? Actually I don’t have any idea what they’re going to play. Actually, they probably don’t either. No, that doesn’t matter. They’re amazing no matter what they do. It’ll be great. Trust me.” Maybe it’s not the best sales pitch to reel in the big numbers, but for the adventurous niche of music listeners who’d be attracted to it, this was just the perfect kind of show to deliver on its promise. Wednesday’s crowd at Boot & Saddle was on the small side but couldn’t have been more enthusiastic to see where things would go, and the band responded by blowing the doors off the place.
You might already know the names behind r_m_s if you’re interested in instrumental improv or progressive rock. Tobias Ralph and Philly native Julie Slick have been together for a few years as part of Adrian Belew’s power trio, while Tim Motzer and his 1k Recordings label have been enriching the city’s underground music scene for a decade and a half. All three are serial collaborators with a pathological itch for new musical avenues to explore.
Local duo Air Is Human started things up with a cozy set of space grooves, which felt extra cozy because they had to set up and play offstage in the middle of the room. (I said the place was tiny.) They got a lot of sound out of a simple setup, just a small drum set and an electric piano run through enough filters that it rarely even sounded like a piano of any sort. Steady rhythms and shifting loops made for an experience that was indeed airy and also hypnotic. It was sort of like the Orb with a slant towards the organic, which is appropriate for a band that’s timing their releases around the equinox and solstice.
r_m_s were also airy and hypnotic – and loud, grungy, peaceful, ferocious or head-trippingly psychedelic as well, depending on where a given piece decided to take them. The night was a dynamic groove-a-thon based around improv and yet centered on a framework that was super-tight. A casual listener wouldn’t have guessed it was their first time playing in this configuration and trying out all-new pieces. They hit cues and followed changes with a precision you’d expect from a long-established jam band, while each shift offered plenty of new chances to stretch out and fly with no boundaries.
With plenty of effects, tones and loops, this is a group interested in sculpting sound as much as playing notes. Motzer took some wild head-spinning guitar solos, but at other times stuck to background shading to allow Slick room to shred her bass like a madwoman. Sometimes she stayed in lockstep with Ralph’s drumming instead (at one point in an intricate pattern so odd I couldn’t even count along). They never felt like they were taking turns so much as having an open three-way dialogue. These three showed a chemistry that’s almost telepathic and a solid knack for knowing how to explore ideas together: listening and responding to each other, knowing when to play and when not to play, and being open to anything.
The trio will play again at Beardfest in Hammonton, New Jersey tonight (June 12th). After that? Undoubtedly they’ll all have still more different combos and collaborations in the future, but I really hope they can squeeze in more time with this trio too. It’s a monster.
Look for our interview with Tim Motzer about his 1k Recordings label and future projects in our upcoming summer print issue.