Reflections in Suspension: A Week of Steve Roach Concerts
by Cliff Tuel, July 7 1996
When telling people I flew from California to Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore just to hear Steve Roach, the reaction is usually the same. The first word out is "wow!", followed by "why?". Unless they're heard of Steve Roach, in which case the reaction is simply an understanding nod. Steve's concerts aren't just another way to spend your entertainment dollar. In the first issue of i/e Magazine, Steve said his concerts are "... not about going to see an entertainer. It's about going to have an experience with the sound, with the music." There's only so much feeling you can get from a CD; the music's there and technically better than what you'd hear live, but the spirit is missing. Seeking those missing feelings, I spent a week following Steve around the country.
It's not easy being an opening act, especially when your music is unlike anything else on the bill. Promoters usually try to book openers that are of the same style as the headliner. Congratulations to Projekt for the guts to book Steve Roach as the opener for both nights of a two-day ambient-gothic-rock festival. I was afraid that the black-clad goth Projekt crowd would be bored silly by Steve's music, but Steve surprised everyone, including himself. Dressed in black jeans and a brown shirt, Steve's outfit was more colorful than most of the crowd. With some chains, piercings, and black lipstick, he would have fit right in! Having bought more than my share of Projekt CD's, I knew what sort of crowd to expect. To my delight, once Steve began playing, the crowd took their seats, and some were really getting into the music. The standing area in front of the stage, which started out empty, soon filled up with fascinated goths. On the second night of the Festival, a number of people in line said they regretted showing up late the first night, and made a point of getting to the theatre early so they wouldn't miss Steve's set.
Steve's set was basically the same both nights, although there was enough improvisation and variation that I didn't feel like I was watching the same concert twice. Each night as people took their seats, the second disc of "Well of Souls" drifted from the loudspeakers. Steve's equipment formed a little command post on stage, perched atop a drum riser -- a bank of keyboards on Steve's left perpendicular to the audience, a mixer and sequencer facing the audience, and a pile of percussion instruments to his right. Steve grabbed a didgeridoo and stepping to the front of the stage, began soloing for a few minutes. He alternated between kneeling at the front of the stage, and blowing high into the air. Then, while still playing, he walked behind the gear and brought the keyboards into the mix. A burst of thunder erupted from the loudspeakers, shaking my rib cage. As the tribal rhythms intensified, I put my hand on the railing in front of me, and felt it shaking. After that, I closed my eyes and let the music take control of my senses. The music was incredibly powerful and rhythmic. Every now and then things would slow down, while the audience got a chance to catch their breath, but soon things would take off again. Most of the material was new, although I did recognize a bit from "The Magnificent Void", and the title track from "Soma"; I might have recognized more had I been in a more conscious state of mind.
After the Projekt Festival, Steve was in great spirits, feeding off the positive energy of the crowd. The Festival introduced Steve's music to a new set of fans. On the Projekt mailing list, Martin Wagner (firstname.lastname@example.org) said "he (Steve Roach) was staggering! Absolutely amazing music! Sent me right off to other worlds. I must buy everything this guy's ever done." Another poster (VampVelvet@aol.com) said "utterly brilliant (you took it to that level you were looking for!) and isn't it odd that the guy who is tossed into new age sections was one of the more upbeat?"
While the highlight of the Projekt Festival was the atmosphere and the enthusiasm of the young crowd, the highlight of Steve's first Philadelphia show in 10 years was the music. Almost everyone in the audience was familiar with Steve's music, and most of them were listeners of Chuck Van Zyl's weekly space/ambient radio show "Star's End". Getting over a cold, I didn't mingle with the crowd as much as I would have liked, but I did meet several nice people. The demographics here were more like what I would have expected for such a concert: 30's and 40's, mostly white. Quite a contrast to the where-can-I-get-a-fake-ID Projekt crowd.
The smart folks brought pillows and blankets to sit on; the rest of us endured uncomfortable folding chairs. After a surprisingly good (but too short) set from Chuck Van Zyl and ex-Nightcrawlers' Peter Gulch (which I would compare to Tangerine Dream if every other synth group weren't already compared to them!), Steve came out with his didgeridoo, and began the show as he did in Chicago. There, the crowd was largely unfamiliar with Steve's music, so he held back on some of the quieter pieces. Here in Philadelphia, however, the opposite was true, and there was a varied mix of the loud and rhythmic, with the quieter pieces. The balance couldn't have been more perfect; just as the frenetic rhythms became overwhelming, the music backed off and breathed. Then, once people had zoned off into their private worlds, the music picked up again.
The Star's End crowd came for the music and the experience, not just to be entertained. Therefore the lighting was minimal, and no one seemed to mind that a slide show of ambient images didn't go off as planned. The music, and the sensation of drifting into and out of The Zone, were unforgettable.
What a trip! Steve Roach the big super-star at an ambient rave? This was the most atypical concert of the week, but the most fun. Imagine a couple hundred kids in a warehouse from 10pm 'til 8am, trancing to non-stop ambient grooves, zoning out while trying to stay awake, or just curling up in sleeping bags drifting in and out of sleep. Some brought candles to set around their blankets on the ground, others brought a variety of mind-altering substances, afraid the music might not be potent enough. Slide projectors lit whole walls with planets and star fields; an uninhibited girl writhed in its light, in time to the music. A movie projector threw random images onto a thin sail hanging from the ceiling and snaking back and forth, so that the image would project on the sail multiple times, each time slightly more out of focus. Green, yellow, and purple lights formed patterns, and black lights lit the corners. The DJ's sat in a huge translucent plastic cocoon, which obscured most of the stage.
At midnight, Chuck Van Zyl took the stage, although with no introduction and obscured by the DJ cocoon, it was hard to tell. The crowd seemed to really enjoy Chuck's set, but in 45 minutes or so it was over, as the music faded into a CD: the title track from "Well of Souls" -- the same pre-show music used in Chicago. As the music began to soothe the crowd, Steve Roach came into the room, slowly walking around blowing incense, filling every corner with its sweet, heady perfume. Not a word was spoken, and as he made eye-contact with the mesmerized audience, they knew they were in for something special. Soon, "Well of Souls" faded away and Steve's didgeridoo broke the silence, transfixing the audience. Unfortunately I couldn't see Steve from where I was, and only those on the far end could see him. But soon it didn't matter, as I closed my eyes and leaned back on my pillow, as the music took off, and took me to another place.
The set followed the same path taken at the Chicago and Philadelphia shows, but there was more of everything. But with the top-notch sound system, the incense in the air, and the vibe of the crowd, the music seemed so much more intense. Steve played for almost three hours non-stop, and those were three of the most relaxing and soul-nourishing hours of my life. The last hour was filled with more upbeat pieces, with modern (almost techno) rhythms and sequences that made no attempt to hide their electronic origins. Over the years Steve's music has sounded less and less electronic and more organic, so it was a rare treat to hear the raw electronics make a comeback. The mood of these pieces was a bit like the Stormwarning album, with the music going fast and hard, shifting around from one rhythm to another, yet it had a distinct 1996 flavor, with the constant waves of synths rising and falling, balancing the driving beats with their steady breaths. As the music segued back into "Well of Souls" from the DJ cocoon, the crowd slowly regained consciousness, and after a few minutes of awed silence, broke into applause.
I had a two-hour drive back to Philadelphia ahead of me, so I left after Steve's set. "Star's End", Chuck's weekly radio show, was underway (pre-taped for logistical reasons). About a half hour outside Philly I was able to pick up the broadcast, and "The Magnificent Void" crackled over my speakers. As the sun began to rise, the climactic soaring notes of "Altus" began. Only minutes after reaching my hotel, "Altus" came to an end, and bleary-eyed and emotionally drained, I stumbled to my room.
I've been back for a week now, and I can't remember ever feeling so relaxed and stress-free. Seeing four Steve Roach concerts in one week was incredible and intensely moving, and I've still not gotten over my emotional and spiritual high. People ask me why I gave up a week of my life to follow a musician around the country. If they could get inside my head, and experience what I've experienced, they would understand.
- Cliff Tuel