Walking into Water Street Music Hall on Saturday night, I didn’t know what to expect. I had heard such great things about STS9’s (short for Sound Tribe Sector 9) live shows, but had missed their 3 a.m. set at the Bonnaroo Music Festival this year to see Gogol Bordello instead. They were also originally supposed to play Water Street Music Hall last March but had to reschedule due to multi-instrumentalist David Murphy’s cancer diagnosis — he has since recovered, thankfully.
STS9 is part of the new “jam electronica” movement that has been taking off lately. The band explains their recent meteoric rise to fame by citing their appeal to electronic dance music aficionados and Deadheads alike. I can understand how their following is like that of a modern Grateful Dead — their fans seem to be part of a cult who can never seem to see too many STS9 concerts.
One of the greatest things about this show, in fact, was how interesting the fans were. Walking into the venue, I came across women in brightly colored tutus, people with neon pacifiers in their mouths, countless glow sticks and tie-dye everywhere. The woman in front of me was wearing a backpack in the shape of a teddy bear, and there were people around me holding up small inflatable dolphins. It was definitely not your average concert crowd.
Between having 10 full-length albums, two EPs and an acoustic live album, and the fact that the group is a strictly instrumental band, it can be a bit difficult to differentiate between specific STS9 songs. It seems, however, that they played a lot of material off their latest EP, “When the Dust Settles,” and their 2008 album “Peaceblaster,” my personal favorite. Admittedly, though, I was a bit bummed that they didn’t play my favorite tune, “Shock Doctrine.”
After playing for an hour, STS9 walked off-stage, and as my friend and I were deciding whether or not to leave before the possible encore, we were reassured by someone next to us that, to our surprise, they usually play two full sets every show, meaning that they were only halfway through. After the 15-minute set break, they dove right back into their infectious, jazzy songs with even more energy than before.
The strongest aspect of the second half of the show was the fact that they played a couple of songs that had very overpowering bass guitar, causing the floor to shake a little. Such bass techniques are most common nowadays in dubstep music, so it was exciting to see a live instrumental band implementing those same ideas. The fact that STS9 is live and electronic — as opposed to the usual electronica played by a deejay — was also very refreshing. I haven’t been to many concerts without a deejay where audience members danced as much as they were on Saturday.
Like many jam electronica acts — including Big Gigantic, Lotus, Conspirator and the New Deal — STS9’s music is best in a live setting. All the band members are multi-instrumentalists who impressively switch off effortlessly between guitars, bass, keyboards and percussion.
The accompanying light show was also extraordinary. The colors changed with every song and often involved strobe lights, disco balls, smoke machines and even occasionally lasers. Light-up balloons were being thrown into the crowd, and people blew bubbles off of the balcony. This entire atmosphere added to the uniqueness of the concert.
STS9 tour endlessly and play seemingly everywhere, not just in major cities, so I would suggest going to see them if you ever have the chance. Don’t be fooled by their mellow, jazzy recordings, which do make great background and studying music — they rework and rearrange all of their songs for shows with such energy and passion that you forget they’re performing all of it live.
Scheinberg is a member of the class of 2014.