SAN FRANCISCO If you didn't like the sound, all you had to do was wait a few seconds.
Genre-defying über-jam underground "supergroup" Secret Chiefs 3 played a rare gig Saturday at Slim's, and the dedicated fans turned out en masse. A constantly mutating gathering, the Chiefs kicked off a tour that will take them across the country during the next four weeks.
They took the stage without a word and opened the show with a short, ripping surf set, all members dressed in tidy black suits. There were so many members on the small stage that it was challenging to tell who was making which noise (two guitarists, two percussionists, etc.), but the result pleased the crowd nonetheless. As it would be for the rest of the show, the sound being created was true to its origin (in this case, surf), with an occasional extra bit of keyboard or roar of feedback to remind you that this was the year 2000, not 1955.
"We try to build each set so that it's a completely different style of music, like you're seeing completely different bands," drummer Danny Heifetz said a few days before the show. "We have a lot of styles to play with, so we end up with a lot of variety."
Rare Stateside Appearance
Since its 1997 inception, the band has released two studio albums, First and Second Grand Constitution and Bylaws, on the somewhat obscure Amarillo label, as well as a live CD and a handful of singles and 7-inches. They've toured Japan and Australia, but they haven't played as an organized entity in the States in nearly two years.
"To see them like this is an amazing thing," said Trina Jacobs, 27, who had driven from Santa Cruz, where the Chiefs had kicked off their tour the previous evening. "I hadn't had the chance to see them play live before last night; I'd only heard the albums. They never tour."
It may be more logistics than eccentricities that keep the band from getting together more often. The members are a motley mash from other projects, including Mr. Bungle, the Bill Frisell Group, Caroliner Rainbow and Dieselhead, among many others. This unlikely grouping brings together sounds and influences that mesh with surprising success.
After priming the crowd with 15 minutes of psycho-surf, the Chiefs left the stage for a short break. Returning dressed more eccentrically (bathrobes and bare feet, fezzes and flowing caftans), the band wordlessly swung into another mind-bending set.
The songs seemed to have no traditional structure, no hooks, requiring the players to be highly disciplined to keep it all from collapsing. The lengthy wordless productions made up myriad musical impressions and 'round-the-world journeys that careened through musical styles, then stopped on a dime.
Their second set started out with a slow bluesy riff that ramped up into ska. A spaghetti-western soundtrack and the hypnotic sound of a carousel calliope were thrown in at one point, before the band settled down into an Eastern-influenced maelstrom. Horn, violin, keyboards, a suitcase full of percussion instruments, guitars, bass and who knows what else rotated on and off the stage.
The core bandmembers Heifetz, Bär McKinnon on keyboards and flute, Trey Spruance on guitar and keyboard effects were joined by Eyvind Kang on violin and guitar, Tom Smolens on bass and Phil Franklin on percussion. They were also complemented throughout the night by free-floating members of Estradasphere, the self-described "Balkan gypsy Dada death-metal" opening band from Santa Cruz.
A slideshow behind the band proved somewhat underwhelming, small and static but may have been more impressive to the more "altered" members of the audience, of whom there seemed to be plenty.
There were few words, no setlist and little movement from the bandmembers. They all appeared to be concentrating intensely, communicating by glances and nods as they changed styles and tempos.
"The Arabic stuff takes the most concentration," Heifetz said. "It's the most challenging for us right now different tunings, different syncopation. We're having fun with it, but it's really different. Never the same thing twice."