Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra @ The Troubadour 2/8/12

Aida and I arrive at the Troubadour about half an hour after the doors
open. It’s possibly my favorite venue in LA. The sound ranges from good to
great and the size is just right. It’s a little empty tonight but people
always seem to arrive at shows right before the main act begins.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Opening act Matana Roberts plays solo improvised saxophone. Her sound
embraces every kind of texture or noise her instrument can produce mixed
with beautiful melodic runs and arpeggios. Between songs she speaks with
charisma of the weirdness of Santa Monica (“Where are all the black
people?”, Botox on the Beach, etc.) as well as her project tracing her
family history to slave manifests in the UK. Her music leaves me feeling
refreshed. I can’t remember the last time I saw a live musical performance
that didn’t involve guitar, keys, or voice.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

The band takes the stage beneath a slightly crooked, completely flipped
portrait of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Guitarist/lead vocalist
Efrim Menuck thanks the now nearly capacity crowd and introduces the group
as Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra “from Montreal, Quebec.” The
roster also includes Sophie Trudeau and Jessica Moss on violin, Thierry
Amar on bass, and David Payant on drums. All five members of the band sing.

Efrim politely, charmingly, insults the city of Los Angeles (with the
caveat “but good people live here”) then announces the first song,“13 Blues
for 13 Moons”. The musicians dig in.

I’m immediately struck by the quality of Efrim Menuck’s voice. On the last
few Silver Mt. Zion albums, Menuck’s quavering, plaintive, howl
occasionally kept me at a distance from the music but here, tonight,
despite barely being able to decipher most lyrics, I find his vocals warm,
inviting, and harmonious with his band and guitar playing. It occurs to me
that his gorgeous, reverb and tremelo drenched, electric guitar tone is an
alien presence amongst the folk instruments of the rest of the band. That’s
not to say the guitar sounds incongruous, in fact, it weaves perfectly
between the violins, bass, and drums. The electric guitar coats the earthly
music with an otherworldly glow.

The band works hard. There are frequent dynamic changes, unconventional
time signatures, and two, three, four and five part harmonies. There is no
light-show, projections, or visual atmospherics to speak of. All eyes are
on the musicians. Violinists Moss and Trudeau create shimmering layers of
precise melody and dense drone. Bassist Amar switches between bowed and
plucked double bass and traditional electric bass. Drummer Payant moves
from gentle dirge to majestic march (and back again) without once stepping
into Kroq territory.

They play material from their last three albums including standouts
“BlindBlindBlind”, “There Is a Light”, and “Horses in the Sky”. I feel most
energized, however, by the (three or four?) new songs which include “What
We Loved Was Not Enough” and encore “Psalm 99”. Suffice to say the next
Silver Mt. Zion record will be powerful.

Between songs Efrim tunes and opens up for questions from the strangely
irreverent crowd. I thought we were done with the drunken, half-ironic,
requests for Freebird? Anyway, Menuck takes the opportunity to respond
with sarcasm and non-sequiturs about Limewire, Mitt Romney and Walker Texas
Ranger. I feel a little embarrassed to be a part of this belligerent Los
Angeles audience but Efrim thanks us for coming out and I can tell he’s
being sincere even if he’s a little annoyed too. At one point someone asks
“When’s the next Godspeed album coming out!?” to which Efrim, who clearly
hears him, responds “What’s that? I can’t hear you.” This exchange repeats
three (or four?) times until the next song silences everyone.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

After the encore we leave and I feel stirred and satisfied. I look at my
watch (my phone); it’s a little after midnight. “They played for two hours,
I think.” Aida says. “Wow.” I say.

Christopher Dreisbach

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