It had been raining quite a bit in Austin lately. For much of September, really, South Texas had been getting some much needed rain to replenish the Edwards Aquifer and to quell the talk of drought year after year. Normally, this rain would be welcome, but The Bad Plus’ performance at The Belmont on Saturday the 28th would be outdoors; besides the interesting adaptations the famed trio had to make during their soundcheck, the concerns about weather were more than significant. Nevertheless, rain or shine, the show must go on, and go on it did.
This was to be The Bad Plus’ first performance together in about two months, a record for the trio who have stayed in pretty constant demand for the last thirteen years of their career. In the slight break, bassist Reid Anderson went on vacation, hopping around Southeast Asia; drummer Dave King spent a week playing the Village Vanguard with his Midwest trio. It’s not like the group got rusty during the small lapse in performances. Their return to the stage was more than welcome and their sense of play and renewed energy from the break was just as adventurous as their approach to the city of Austin, a place they had played a few times before over the years
I had the pleasure of having dinner with pianist Ethan Iverson before the trio took the stage at 10:15 that night, a rather late set for them, especially considering the one hour time difference from their New York roost. Iverson and I walked a few blocks down the always busy Sixth Street to The Driskill, the historic hotel built in 1886. It, as intended, draws crowds with its massive size and its luxury veneer. It seemed tailor made for Iverson’s older tastes as we talked about Vijay Iyer’s MacArthur success, Billy Hart’s thoughts about the school of Steve Coleman, Robert Glasper’s career arc and ability to make straight-up hits, how Matt Smith was just a decent but not charismatic enough Doctor, and why Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is straight up catchy (even though it’s definitely a little bit rapey). The man is as fascinating and focused in his interests as his playing and his blogging would indicate. A little over an hour later, it was time to head back to The Belmont.
The show itself was the greatness one would expect from the group. As The Bad Plus’ career has stretched on, they have a clear catalog to pull from in their performances. For a group who broke onto the scene in 2000 known largely for their covers of Blondie, Aphex Twin and others, they’re now known for having their own unique sound and strong compositions. As Anderson regaled to me the next morning as we waited for hours in line at the famed Franklin Barbecue (getting in line at 8 [well, Reid was there at 8, I overslept until 9 and got there around 9:45] for a barbecue place that opens at 11 was totally worth it), they’re happy to be together playing their own music. The driving force of this group is the ability to truly be themselves in their art. It is this that ensured The Bad Plus could roll merrily along for thirteen years and counting; from their founding onward, Iverson, Anderson, and King were focused on making this group something that would last and something that would continue to grow.
It was this feeling that rang through the evening as the trio started off the night with a couple songs from 2005’s Suspicious Activity?, then weaving through various songs from 2010’s Never Stop and last year’s Made Possible, while also sprinkling in a couple new songs which might very well show up on their next album. These new songs were still very much in the pocket of their body of work (or at least as in the pocket as The Bad Plus can be). There was the perfect intermingling of Swiss-timed precision in their well-worn songs as there was for great interplay. It is especially in their performance when one can see how there are moments in their songs when Anderson can lay down a rolling rhythm, how King can just be his usual Animal-like self, and how Iverson can take a quick aside to vary a tune for a bit, but it’s the song itself that must stay true. When Reid Anderson speaks about the fulfillment these three have about playing their own music, it’s so clear in the strength of their compositions and how well executed they are on their albums and when performed live.
Such was the way The Bad Plus’ Austin excursion played out– a most elegant adventure. Every note had its place and every nook and cranny explored, either on the stage or in the streets, was as well thought out as these men had intended. Even when things were out of their control, like their struggles through soundcheck or fighting against the clock with such a late downbeat or steadily dropping barometric pressure, it all worked out in the end. As the evening drew to a close, the trio ended their set with Made Possible‘s opener, “Pound for Pound”, and the moment Dave King’s toms rang out, the rain that had held itself back all night started to fall. Only a few umbrellas broke out in the audience, but the crowd stayed transfixed. They simply didn’t care about the weather. The murmur died down long ago. This was an audience who came out and braved the elements because it was The Bad Plus, damnit. No matter what would have transpired, Iverson, Anderson, and King and everyone watching them at The Belmont knew this night would be great, and as the rains started to fall as one last song began to swell and shimmer, it ended up being simply perfect.
After two months off from touring, the trio is crisscrossing the globe once again. Catch them if they’re heading your way.