Matt Williams sat cross-legged underneath his keys, 4 cans of Fat Tire lined up directly beside him. A ball of nervous energy since I met him earlier that afternoon, you could tell he was teetering on the edge of irritability waiting for the show to begin. Emerging next was a grinning Billy Hunter, taking his anomalous center stage position atop a folding chair. All the while, Geoff Barrow had crept behind his sparkling Gretsch drum kit, stage right. For a group of musicians as distinguished as these, it had to have been the least rock-star entrance I’d ever seen. And true to character they stayed, right up until the self-appointed encore.
But when the first note hit, the room was theirs to shape. Locked into one another like a jazz group with rabies, they crafted a web of melodies and rhythms that held the crowd hostage. Barrow took note of the crowds attentiveness, a trait that had been absent on an earlier leg of the tour. This was my first time stepping in The Echoplex, and Beak> made it sound like the Chicago Theatre with their gift of sonic restraint. While Williams shuffled between his synths, guitar and Barrow’s drums like a buzzed Jonny Greenwood, Fuller rocked back and forth in his chair, transfixed on his virtuosic fret board wizardry. All the while Barrow kept a watchful eye over both the stage and crowd, laying simple rhythms that seemed nearly subconscious. Those drums though. My god, those drums. The tones elicited from the fat, yet crisp snare to the rain shower ride cymbal were what studio engineers dream of.
The trio’s stage dynamic was engrossing and empathetic. Barrow handled most of the verbal communication — a band leader in every sense. To his right, Fuller’s joyful dominance was perfectly situated. There were moments where you couldn’t take your eyes off of him, and Barrow acknowledged as much, stating “That’s not a laptop. He’s a human being.” during a particularly impressive stretch. However, Williams stole the show, for me. The man is a special talent with a sharp attitude that saw him lash out at chatty audience members, flip off his electronics, and exhibit general mastery of every musical endeavor he chose on this given night. Whether punching jungle rhythms with mallets behind Barrow’s kit or using what appeared to be a recycled LG Chocolate on his Stratocaster pickups, Williams added depth and flair to the brooding steamroller that are Beak>’s arrangements. The highlight of the night occurred during “Wulfstan II”, where the moments of silence met unabashed coercion on behalf of Barrow’s cymbals and Williams’ distortion pedal. In between the ultra-dense arrangements were moments of welcome levity, ranging from Barrow introducing their “chart topping” single to Williams declaration of a urinary emergency. We were treated to a bit of everything on this night, but not too much of anything. It’s almost unthinkable that the entire set list was a product of improvisational exercises. A balancing act like i’d never seen, Beak> was masterful in every way.