Zammuto at the Earl, Atlanta, GA, September 10, 2012. Photo by Jeff Pearson.
Here in the Southeast, we are in this period of seasonal ambiguity that even long-time residents can never seem to put their finger on. It is a time of hot pink sunsets—the kind that only a sweltering summer’s worth of pollution can color the sky ever so beautifully with—and deceptively cooling temperatures. One day the looming autumn breezes will whisk your mind away to a state of peaceful foolishness, where we truly believe the hot weather is behind us until the next year, and we dig through the back of our closets for our seldom-used sweater collection, only to realize the following day as we sweat profusely through what has suddenly become a wool straitjacket, that summer is not quite done with us yet. Monday night in Atlanta—a particularly pink evening, as it were—was one of those nights, where even as I am writing this, knowing fully that I’ve still got plenty of sweaty days ahead of me, that just might be the real thing. A cool breeze, lovely and serene, seems to blow away all sense of reality with it. Even the typically stifling Earl was tricked; it was actually refreshingly cool as Zammuto did their best to heat the place up.
We arrived in the club to a small smattering of attendees already having willed themselves out of the comfort of their homes on a Monday night, with the stage dimly-lit upon two lone instruments: a Theremin and a lap steel guitar. The two musicians who would be wielding these somewhat unorthodox instruments to open the night up for Zammuto were just taking the stage to perform an improvisational piece under their appropriately titled moniker Duet For Theremin And Lap Steel. After raising their Dixie cup shot glasses to one another and tipping a shot back, Scott Burland and Frank Schultz set upon haunting the enthralled crowd with an ethereal exploration of seemingly the farthest reaches of outer space. Burland pulled surreal sounds out of the depths of his Theremin; you could almost see glistening strands of light stretch from the ends of the instrument to his fingertips as sustained wails filled the small club. Schultz was similarly extracting unique emanations from his instrument. He turned the lap steel into a colorful, pulsating effects center, providing the backdrop upon which Burland could stalk; there were times throughout their all-too-short set, as eerie Robbie Land film was projected behind them, that the two sounded like a twisted symphony orchestra. Intense imagery of burning woods propelled the music to new heights as Schultz provided an oscillating accompaniment that sounded like a chorus of bells descending upon the Earl and Burland’s Theremin screamed for escape. It was all seemingly over in a flash, the tape loops behind the duo flowering into bursts of color before finally withering into nothing, the ambient musical experimentation doing the same. The experience was akin to a dream; the entire club seemed immersed in liquefied sounds for a short time, with the music constantly on the verge of overtaking the crowd and suffocating us in our sleep.
Zammuto barely gave us any time to wipe the sand from our eyes, as they seemingly took the stage and ripped into their set within a matter of minutes, taking our floating dream-state in a completely different direction. Immediately into the first funky notes of “Groan Man, Don’t Cry,” the explosive set opener, we were thrown headlong into the very physical and impactful world in comparison to the Duet’s celestial projections. Nick Zammuto, the mind behind the project, formerly of The Books, and Gene Back ripped through slinky guitar lines atop the instantly stunning rhythm section of drummer Sean Dixon and bassist Mikey Zammuto. The track set the tone for the entire set—the energy onstage was constant and infectious as Zammuto plowed through amped-up versions of the stand-outs from the self-titled debut record. What come off as subdued and meticulously textured on record are transformed into progressive rock masterpieces in person. Not to say the meticulousness was lost in the translation to the stage; the quartet had complete control over the complex compositions. As Zammuto’s auto-tuned voice danced atop the thick instrumentation of “Groan Man, Don’t Cry,” sounding like an arpeggiating synthesizer adding an element of otherworldliness to the heavy funk blasts, the tightness on display actually far surpassed any studio mastery.
The pace of Zammuto’s set never wavered—the band jammed through an inspired and uplifting hour of music that was constantly teetering on the edge of completely reckless abandon and all-out precision. Everything was tied together by the jaw-dropping drumming of Dixon, who drove the band through Zammuto’s tracks thunderously. There were points when I am pretty sure even the other three members of the band were watching Dixon pound out the complex rhythms to the tracks, not simply to find the pulse beneath such densely layered arrangements, but in awe of the technicality. The rhythmic intricacy morphed Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover” into a post-jazz experimentation, only recognizable by the timeless vocal melody that Zammuto weaved underneath. Zammuto and Back fed off of the propulsive rhythmic section, and it was clear that after having found their stride together out on the road, the band’s sound had naturally evolved to such explosive heights over time.
Aside from the technicality constantly on display, the music also revolved around the video projections that Zammuto triggered throughout the set. A complete one-eighty from the unnerving imagery we were exposed to earlier in the evening, the band used their visual accompaniment to interject humor into the set. It was refreshing to see a band utilize humor in music, an artform that seems to have been totally stripped of it over the years, in addition to the seriousness that they obviously approach their playing with. As Zammuto battled Dixon’s pounding drums with MIDI bass drops on “Zebra Butt,” arguably the most awe-inspiring moment of the concert, images of—well—zebra butts flashed on the screen. This was really just the beginning of the projector screen shenanigans, as the final portion of the concert was what they dubbed the “commercial break,” where they provided impeccably timed and perfected jams to accompany ridiculously dated—and hilarious—advertisements for products such as The Stick, some sort of “exercise” device that far too pleased users were rubbing all over their bodies. Zammuto even pulled out a stick of his own, which, after doing a little research on the Internet, he spent no less than $34.95 (plus shipping, of course) if he bought it legitimately from The Stick’s official website. Of course, he could have used a third-party avenue, or even followed one of the myriad of tutorials to make his own, but he’d have to confirm that himself.
The “commercial break” peaked with an incredible progressive rock instrumental version of The Books’ “Classy Penguin,” constantly winding around itself and ending in an explosion of sound. I am fairly certain the footage shown were home movies from the Zammuto household, judging by the uncanny resemblance of the lead protagonist to Mikey, and the bashful grin the bassist wore as he tried to avoid watching while shaking the club with low-end. As was the theme for the night, Zammuto’s set ended all-too soon with what they dubbed “The Greatest Autoharp Solo Of All Time.” The track was an inspired exploration of mixed-media entertainment—they had a chopped up instructional video of an autoharp lesson playing the Civil War march, “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic,” serve as the foundation of their final number. As the video clip picked up speed, the members began to add their touches—first Dixon with militaristic snare rolls, the Zammuto brothers slowly filling out the sound with guitar and bass, all the way to Back filling out the sound with soaring keyboards over what was, at that point, a huge sound. Everyone was on board, the Monday crowd swept up in the joy that was coming from the stage, grinning ear to ear as we walked out into the hotter-than-we-remembered September night. The weather tomorrow might be unpredictable, but one thing is easy to predict: the next show Zammuto plays will leave a club full of people with grins on their faces walking out into whatever weather awaits them.