Colin Stetson [Live]


Dimly lit and understated, Café Oto seems this evening like the perfect place for the Boatshed’s first foray into jazz territory. The locally brewed ale flows as discerning guests shuffle in to the Dalston venue. A dense semi-circle of chairs surrounds the small stage and fans eagerly take their seats in anticipation for a show quite unlike most.

The man of the hour is Colin Stetson, saxophonist to Bon Iver and Arcade Fire, and a unique artist in his own right. Y’know that lurking bass sax that warms your cockles on Bon Iver – that’s him. On his own, Stetson uses the circular breathing technique to play an unceasing stream of sax riffs, while also singing and tapping the instrument’s keys percussively. The effect is mesmerising and, like one-man-act guitar players such as Andy McKee, creates a sound completely unto itself.* The sheer gravity of his multitasking is surely enough to enthral anyone. Justin Vernon adds vocals to Stetson’s third record, New History Warfare Vol. 3, but tonight it’s about this man and his singular talent.

As soon as first song ‘Among the Sef’ starts we’re aware of how physical Stetson’s performance is. His face contorts with focus as arpeggios stream from the stage. Live, the amplified sound makes his key-tapping sound like actual drums, which really builds on the record. His body rocks back and forth as guttural moans emanate from his throat. A cold alpine wind comes to mind, roaming through the forest.

On ‘Hunted’, another from New History Warfare Vol. 3, the huge bell of the bass sax stares outwards, as if to challenge those that would defy this obscure music. It’s as if a massive industrial machine has started up, Stetson’s breath acting as the organic fuel behind it. The song ends and he exhales loudly, wipes a perspiring brow, then eloquently describes how a friend told him that ‘High Above a Grey Green Sea’ reminds her of the story of the loneliest whale in the world. The world’s largest mammal is not a bad comparison for Stetson’s undulating compositions, and said track is wrought with fearful throaty cries.

Throughout the set, Stetson continues to explain the background of these flowing instrumentals. It’s refreshing to hear, since many non-lyrical rarely give such a clear description of their writing process. From his second record, New History Warfare Vol. 2, ‘Judges’ is about fear, and the raw physical power of the piece’s performance articulates this perfectly. It’s a show of extreme technical proficiency, but laced with genuine emotion and this is what makes Colin Stetson such a captivating live act. Maybe you’ve seen him alongside the seven others that now make up Bon Iver, but he must be seen solo because Stetson is far far more than a mere component of Justin Vernon’s vision.

* I think I should qualify that there really is little actual musical comparison between these two. Due to the very different nature of the instruments, one man and a saxophone will be entirely different to one man and a guitar. Still though, there is a limitation that goes with being a one-man act and this is a factor within the unique sound cultivated by such acts.

By Tom Phelan

Colin performing 'Judges'.