Ever smile so hard during a show that your face hurt afterward? Hearing Things will do that to you. They’re the funnest band in Brooklyn right now. Tenor saxophonist Matt Bauder, organist/keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza play bouncy, wickedly tuneful, often very dark original surf instrumentals that frequently veer into psychedelia or Ethiopiques. The trio play at 7 PM on 9/11, the centerpiece of a triplebill at their home base these days, Barbes. It’s a typical Barbes night: the segues are pretty bizarre, but the music is killer. Pianist Joel Forrester, one of the great wits in jazz and co-founder of the irrepressibly cinematic Microscopic Septet, opens the evening solo at 5. If you dig the theme to NPR’s Fresh Air – which he wrote – you’ll appreciate his sense of humor and Monk-influenced purposefulness. At around 9:30, after Hearing Things, guitarist Stephane Wrembel and his trio play his signature mix of Romany jazz, hypnotic post-Velvets psychedelia and Pink Floyd-influenced art-rock themes.
Hearing Things opened their most recent Barbes show last month by faking out the crowd with a honking, deadpan cover of Midniter, by the Champs. Sperrazza took a drum break that was more Gene Krupa than Mel Taylor, which made the song even funnier. Would this set the tone for the rest of the night? No.
Bauder opened the next number with a misterioso Ethiopian riff as Sperrazza tumbled ominously on the toms and Schlegelmilch anchored everything with creepy funeral organ. Quickly, they hit a swirly spacerock interlude and then took the song back toward enigmatic Mulatu Astatke territory over Sperrazza’s rolling triplets. The fluttery, echoey outro sounded like early Pink Floyd spun through a food processor.
The nonchalantly macabre stroll after that was a dead ringer for Beninghove’s Hangmen, bloody overotnes dripping from Schlegelmilch’s electric piano, Bauder pulling the trio back toward Addis Ababa, 1976. Then they picked up the pace with an uneasy go-go shuffle, like a John Waters soundtrack piece on brown acid, organ and sax trading menacing fours with the drums midway through, Bauder finally taking an angst-fueled spiral up to the rafters as they wound it up. Then they swung their way through another mashup of horror surf, Spudnik and Ethiopiques, evoking another excellent if now obscure New York keyboard-surf band, Brainfinger. By now, most of the room was dancing.
Introducing Hubble Brag, Bauder took a break and reached for his phone, where he pulled up the Hubble Telescope Twitter feed and proceeded to crack up the audience with a few of them. Pity the poor NASA intern stuck with that job. At the end, Bauder was laughing as hard as the crowd. “We’re mostly a music band,” he shrugged.
Sperrazza’s hushed, ominously resonant bolero groove drove the next number, Bauder’s long washes bleeding overtones over a distant river of funeral organ. They picked up the pace with another uneasily stabbing go-go tune: if the Stranglers played go-go music, they would have sounded like that. The shuffle afterward was a lot more wry and easygoing, Then they took Peter Gunne into the Apollo 5 control room before Schlegelmilch sent it spiraling off towards Doors territory, anchoring his rapidfire righthand organ with catchy lefthand keyboard bass riffage. The crowd screamed for more, but the band was out of originals. It’s hard to think of a better alternative to all the somber 9/11 memorial stuff going on this weekend.