Fresh off a two-week tour, Itchy-O was still clearly in well-toned performance condition on Saturday night at the Mercury Cafe. The band has always had a strong physical presence, and that, coupled with its mysterious, musical cultist appearance, means the thirty-plus member outfit is impossible to ignore or forget. But something about this night, with the custom lighting handled by assistant techs, who also made sure the proper level of fog floated throughout the Mercury, made for an especially eerie and affecting performance.
Rather than playing the return show with something punk or heavy or experimental in the more traditional sense of that word, Itchy-O shared the stage with Ian Cooke, who played solo with cello, piano and loops of voice and instruments. It was quite a contrast with the small army of Itchy-O. As usual, Cooke was the gracious and charming performer whose casual manner made it seem as though he was choosing the set list as he went along.
Treating us to some Cooke classics, like the delicately atmospheric "Vasoon" and an older track popular with the crowd and old fans, "Monster," which Cooke described as an "unrequited love song." What came as a bit of a surprise were a couple of tracks from Cooke's upcoming album about dinosaurs, including "Stegosaurus" and "Quetzalcoatlus." While playful and in some ways whimsical, both songs had that combination of sophistication and purity of intent and expression that continue to make Cooke a compelling artist.
After Cooke left the stage and the room darkened, a low thrum seemed to roll into the room like morning fog and a single bicycle rider with a rig of speakers behind him came into view and swept the room of casual conversation for a few moments as the members of Itchy-O strode in and took up their places. The drum corps stood with the three taiko players as well as the bassist and guitarist on stage while various other players and Larry the Lion milled about and through the crowd. There was a clear sense of focus, and not just the nervy energy that must go into making this all go off properly, that informed every song.
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It didn't feel like a loose conglomeration coming together for an event. This felt like no flash mob, not that it ever did. It felt like seeing a secret ritual for a very open-minded tribe of some sort. The coherence of the playing was tangible, and the beats more assured. Toward the end, there was a moment when three of the vocalists took the stage and engaged in some undecipherable "singing."
Whether intentional or not, the pattern of lighting felt like sunrise, daylight and sunset a handful of times throughout the show, thereby reinforcing a sense of ritualistic disorientation. The sheer precision of the taiko crew enhanced that notion, and by the end of the night, all sweaty and exuberant, everyone wandered off once it became clear the band wasn't going to do an encore. We were like seekers who had just witnessed an auto-da-fé without death being on the line and no heretics needing to be punished. It was a raw and pure catharsis of a show.
Bias: In my opinion, Ian Cooke is one of the most talented living songwriters and performers. Itchy-O is undoubtedly the experimental band from Denver that leaves the most visceral impression, and I've been a fan since first seeing the group in early 2010.
Random Detail: Ran into Ian O'Dougherty of many local bands at the show as well as former Mood Syrup and Pink Swastikas frontman Lloyd Arcesia who was shooting pictures as he often does. Also, though it wasn't pointed out explicitly, Simon Cheffins of Crash Worship performed at this show. It was fitting, then, that the band covered "Wild Mountain" by Cheffins' old band.
By the Way: DJ Babyshoe provided a tasteful mix of older and newer music when the bands weren't playing.
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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.