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Reid Anderson plays the bass during “Variation d’Apollon” at the Berklee Performance Center on April 3.
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The Bad Plus (featuring Wendy Lewis)

Berklee Performance Center, Boston, Mass.

April 3, 2009

Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Mass.

April 4, 2009

What better way to spend my 21st birthday weekend than with my favorite band, The Bad Plus. The time-shifting, genre-bending trio celebrated songs from their new release, For All I Care, as well as old tunes (and some new, but unreleased ones as well) at Berklee Performance Center on Friday, April 3rd, and at Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton on Saturday April 4th. The trio, consisting of Reid Anderson (bass), Ethan Iverson (piano), and David King (drums), have been playing the majority of their shows with vocalist Wendy Lewis, who joined the band on For All I Care. On both shows this weekend, they began with a traditional trio set, and then brought Lewis out for the second half.

On Friday, the group entered the stage to excited applause and began with a delicate and elegant interpretation of Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon.” King, using brushes to lightly color the rhythmic angle of the piece, was captured beautifully – the attentive audience remained quiet and immersed and the venue emphasized even the slightest rake at the snare drum. King and Iverson, though far apart on the stage, kept vigilant eye contact in order to execute the well-timed hits throughout the song. Immediately after “Variation,” the band kicked in to “Thriftstore Jewelry,” a King composition from the Bad Plus’ previous effort Prog.

Often performing pairs of songs, interspersed with Iverson’s deadpan monotone, the group let the pianist introduce a new composition of his. He told the story of Bill Hickman, a Hollywood stunt artist. Iverson continued, “This song is not about his exciting life on a studio set … this is called ‘Bill Hickman at Home.’” The audience’s laughter spilled into the light blues, which entered a slow section where King kept the beat by flicking his fingers at an open snare drum. “Semi-simple Variations,” a relatively short song, ended with King counting off on his drumsticks to lead the band immediately into “Physical Cities,” a rhythmic conundrum composed by Anderson.

Iverson got on the mic to bring out Wendy Lewis, who provided vocals for the cover songs on For All I Care. She stepped up to her own microphone and began singing “Lock, Stock, and Teardrops,” an old Roger Miller number. Lewis’ voice was thin on the higher notes, and she took the first couple songs to warm up her voice. By the shouting chorus of Nirvana’s “Lithium,” Lewis was in command of the hall, and in her strong vocal range. Lewis’ half of the set required no banter between songs — the group cued each other with short musical motifs (most noticeably before “Radio Cure,” Anderson fingered the second half of the melody) and traveled from one song to another seamlessly. Anderson provided backing vocals for “Radio Cure” and “Comfortably Numb.”

The band made sure to remain democratic even with Lewis on stage. Sections of songs included long, improvised passages, which prompted Lewis to crouch low on the stage and allow the band to play. Rather than stick out as a guest vocalist, Lewis fit snugly as a fourth instrument in the group. King introduced “New Year’s Day” (originally by U2) with a driving drum solo, and Anderson led the audience into “How Deep is Your Love?” A standing ovation followed “Comfortably Numb” and the group ended with a fast version of “Barracuda” that sent the audience into laughter. The four musicians stayed behind to sign albums and meet with the audience.

The following night, The Bad Plus played to a significantly smaller crowd at the Iron Horse Music Hall. The group opened with another beautiful rendition of “Variation d’Apollon,” and followed it with an Iverson tune, “Who’s He?” This set also included two songs from The Bad Plus’ 2004 release Give. The first, “1979 Semi-Finalist,” was considerably slower and quieter than the studio version, and calmed the audience down for a riveting foray into Pygmy music with Ligeti’s “Fém.” Instead of appending “Semi-simple Variations” with “Physical Cities,” Give’s fast-paced rocker “And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation” followed.

Lewis came out for a near-identical set to the previous night, with “Lock, Stock and Teardrops” missing. “Blue Velvet” was especially moving in the smaller space, and the extended jam in “Radio Cure” caused the audience to applaud mid-song. Anderson and Iverson simultaneously moved out of the improvisational territory and into the ending chord progression to the song. The band played an encore of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” which they have performed in the past but never with vocals. Anderson took care of the singing, faithfully imitating Young’s shaky voice. Lewis joined in on harmonies. At the climax of the song, the audience sat still as the four members of the group repeated the chorus of the song in a four-part harmony, completely a cappella.

Though the bar closed right after the set, and I couldn’t grab a birthday beer with David King, The Bad Plus performed two exciting shows back-to-back. They proved their trio’s integrity by delivering beautiful and well-rehearsed opening sets, and also convinced the audience that their collaboration with Lewis was a definite and immense success. The Bad Plus are heading to the Midwest for the remainder of their travels, but keep checking www.thebadplus.com for future tour announcements.