ITCHY-O at 3 KINGS TAVERN | 12/31/13 It only took moments to lose a sense of context. Less than five minutes into Itchy-O's New Year's Eve set at 3 Kings Tavern, any normal sense of time and place had already started to melt away. No, it wasn't because of too much champagne --- that surreal and otherworldly feel came from the sobering scope and scale of Itchy-O's dizzying performance. That started when a crew of more than thirty musicians seemed to appear all at once, emerging onto the stage and circulating through every corner of the bar. The dozens of players carried percussion rigs fit for a marching band, toted odd gizmos that looked straight out of a mad scientist's lab and dressed in burkas and elaborate dragon costumes.
It all made for an immersive musical start to 2014. Itchy-O's trademark blend of performance art, stagecraft and sheer volume seemed to fill up every inch of 3 Kings. but although the marching band is made up of more than thirty members, the group never let its size become overwhelming. Every element of the show fit, whether it was passing a dancing girl dressed in a burka on the way to the bar, catching a view of an elaborate dragon costume straight out of the Chinese New Year or standing in an elbow-to-elbow crowd near the stage to watch the band's main corps of drummers go wild on marching band instruments.
That glorious chaos started out with a soundcheck that felt only a little quirky. After an opening set by the electronic trio Men In Burka that got the crowd dancing, three drummers dressed in leather S&M jumpsuits sat in a row at the back of the stage. A bassist donning a black leather mask and a sombrero strung with Christmas lights stood toward the densely packed crowd and stayed silent as he tuned up. Apart from the costumes, the musicians did very little to stand out.
Then came the first rounds of distorted vocals and sirens, sounds that seemed to come from the front of the stage, the side of the stage and the back of the house. That effect came from a crew of Itchy-O members wandering around the wings rigged with speakers, microphones and electronic mixing equipment. A band member carried a huge banner with the band's logo on stage like some kind of battle standard. Clouds of smoke suddenly filled every inch of the stage, and the very landscape of the bar seemed to shift.
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All of the players offered different layers to tunes like "Wild Mountain," "Orange Devil" and "Garden of Igigi." Standing near the front of the stage, it was the percussion that stood out, the hypnotizing rhythms beat out by more than ten drummers donning black masks and dark marching band uniforms. Wandering around the fringes of the crowd, it was the electronic effects that took the spotlight. That was partly because of proximity - as band members passed with huge speakers slung to their backs, the nuanced vocals and effects played a bigger part.
As the hour neared midnight, the huge ensemble receded just as suddenly as they'd appeared. In a matter of minutes, the drum corps melted away from the main stage and the wandering backup crew vanished from the wings. The band took their break to allow for the countdown to 2014. A band member from Men In Burka took the official role as counter, and couples still sweaty from furious dances to Itchy-O's first set danced and kissed on the stage.
The break was short. After the noise makers sounded and the couples danced, the main stage cleared for a second set. The band's return was just as chaotic, complex and compelling as its first. Electronic effects fused with old fashioned marching drum lines. The elaborate costumes felt more like a living theater piece than a cheap parlor trip. Dancers wandered around the crowd and painted revelers' foreheads with marks of black ink.
It all lent for the kind of feel one would expect from a good New Year's Eve party. Bizarre costumes, giant instruments, dancing girls and jumping dragons - it doesn't' get more celebratory than that. But the real lure of the performance was more basic. Along with the vibrant and energetic opening set by Men In Burkas, Itchy-O's ambitious performance boasted the most danceable kind of rhythms around. There's no avoiding moving your body when you're plumb in the middle of a marching band. It's music designed to spur movement, and that much was clear in the very first hours of the new year.
Personal Bias: I knew a lot of band geeks in high school, so I have a special place in my heart for the lush percussion and driving rhythm of marching music. Random Note: The opening set from Men In Burka included an impressive art component. A slideshow in the background featured surreal animations and photo work. By The Way: Standing immediately next to a corps of ten-plus marching band drummers will leave a ringing in your ears. It was still totally worth it.
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