Norwich Arts Centre
June 5, 2009
Led Bib's five band members ambled on to the stage of the Arts Centre and looked friendly enough. They began playing "Yes, Again," and the delicate opening bars from Toby McLaren's keyboard drifted gently across the auditorium. But barely a minute later, as the alto saxophones of Chris Williams and Pete Grogan kicked in and the rhythm section of Mark Holub on drums and Liran Donin on bass guitar drove the tempo upwards, the audience were suddenly reminded of why this exciting and original group have been labelled "punk jazz." Over the rest of their two sets Led Bib also made it clear that this label is far too conservative and restricting to come close to describing their sound.
This was the opening night of a tour to promote their fourth CD, Sensible Shoes (Cuneiform, 2009). Tracks from the album formed the bulk of the night's set, alongside two or three "classics," as Holub described them, such as their version of Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie" from Arboretum (Slam, 2005). The new and as yet unfamiliar tunes, written mainly by drummer Holub, came across strongly, riff- laden passages giving an immediacy to the tunes while slow and melodic sections contrasted with the free- jazz approach taken in other parts. "Sweet Chilli," Chris Williams' "Zone 4" and the splendidly-titled "Squirrel Carnage" sounded especially strong.
Key to the Led Bib sound are the alto saxophones of Williams and Grogan. They played beautifully in unison and blasted out some great solos as well, but this was by no means just a "horns and rhythm section" ensemble. The sax players were happy to lay down the rhythm or take a break while other band members played lead lines or solos and across the two sets each of the quintet took the spotlight at least once, displaying plenty of technical skill and musical invention. The beautiful interplay between Grogan's alto and Donin's bass guitar during "Sweet Chilli" was a particular highlight. Donin switched between bass guitar and double bass over the two sets, playing with equal dexterity on both instruments.
The band members clearly enjoyed themselves, whether soloing or playing as an ensemble, with no one player hogging the limelight. In fact, the lack of egos worked to the band's disadvantage on stage since, with no one acting as front man, the musicians' interactions with the audience were limited and rather hesitant, even though they are clearly amiable and friendly individuals who were happy to talk to audience members at the interval and the end of the evening. If their announcements and introductions had been delivered with the same degree of confidence they brought to their playing the overall performance would have been strengthened.
Comparisons have been drawn between Led Bib and artists as diverse as Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and Metallica, as well as the punk movement. To an extent, all of these are relevant, but the band neither needs nor encourages such comparisons. The quintet has developed its own distinctive approach to composition and performance, inspired by, but not in thrall to, its influences. This performance demonstrated clearly that Led Bib's approach to dynamics and invention creates a unique soundand a great night out.