MuteMath Has Their Vitals Checked – The Play Dead Tour
If the titles of MuteMath’s previous and current albums weren’t simply coincidental they’d be downright prophetic: Vitals and Play Dead. Still, despite some devastating body-blows MuteMath is still alive and well, and on tour.
Stratosphere… Certainly the vital signs of the band have been strong, scoring some healthy visibility, especially with the “Monument” video and recent tour with the immensely popular Twenty One Pilots. Massive exposure at stadium venues, a hot new album, and a single with a built-in human interest story tailor-made for the likes of Ellen and Entertainment Tonight….
Blood Pressure… Cut to May, 2017: MuteMath’s much-loved bass player, Roy Mitchell-Cardenas announces that he will no longer be a touring member of the band, although he will remain part of the creative team and as a contributor to the recording process, along with Paul Meany, Darren King, and Todd Gummerman. As a matter of fact, Roy is very much involved with the making of Play Dead, the band’s highly anticipated new album. In June, MuteMath announces the PLAY DEAD LIVE tour, which kicks off in Europe and finds its way to the Northeast of the US in early Fall. Three weeks before the tour starts, Darren King - arguably a huge part of the MuteMath legacy on record, and certainly onstage - tells Paul Meany he’s leaving the band and will not be part of the tour. In one of those ‘the show must go on’ moments, Meany issues a statement letting the fan-base know that the tour will, in fact, happen but without King on drums. With three weeks to prepare, Paul Meany is now the last man standing from the original, established MuteMath line-up. Long-time friend and occasional stage-mate, Jonathan ‘B-face’ Allen, has already been preparing to fill-in for Roy, but suddenly there’s an elephant in the room-size space on stage right, as MuteMath’s vital signs are going to be tested on the road...
After We Have Left Our Homes… MuteMath originated in Gumbo country, and the current touring band is a musical stew worthy of New Orleans. Hutch was actually the drummer for the legendary Earthsuit, a fine, creative band featuring Paul Meany, Adam LaClave, Roy Mitchell (the hyphenated Mitchell-Cardenas would come later), and guitarist Dave Rumsey. Hutch was replaced, ironically, by one Darren King. Jonathan ‘B-Face Allen’ was not only on MuteMath’s initial EP, but was also part of another Earthsuit spin-off, Macrosick (a band that also featured former Earthsuit member Adam LaClave and a couple of guys named Paul and Darren). Multi-instrumentalist Todd Gummerman, often the busiest man on stage, had been brought in to replace original guitarist and founding member Greg Hill.
Plan B… When Meany realized that an extraordinary drummer would be needed to fill in for the now-absent King, he immediately called on David ‘Hutch’ Hutchison, who was waiting for an opportunity to get back into making music. A few weeks later, he’d jump in at the deep end, into a major tour that would start in Europe and hit the United States one week into the release of the new album! The three-week break-in period would be a challenge - but a challenge he was up for. With the lion’s share of the pressure on his shoulders, Paul Meany faced the prospect of touring in support of a brand-new album with a band that featured only half of the studio line-up.
I caught two stops on the Northeast leg of the US tour – New Haven, Connecticut first, then Brooklyn, NY five days later. The band’s reception by the crowds in both venues was as enthusiastic and vociferous as ever, and the word had already been spreading that MuteMath was in fine shape. Both shows featured opening sets by Romes and Colony House - bands that played respectfully economic sets of well-crafted pop/rock, knowing that the crowd was really there to see MuteMath. Romes, a quartet evenly split by Canadian and Irish members, delivered their songs in an energetic style, surprising the audience by the injection of the memorable riff from Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” in the middle of one of the songs.
Colony House, fronted by Caleb and Will Chapman (sons of Steven Curtis Chapman), performed hooky arrangements of country-tinged alt-rock and satisfied the crowds at both venues with a tight set of well-performed songs, setting the stage for the band that everyone was so eager to see and hear...
Control… It’s been well-know from years of concerts that MuteMath puts on an exciting show that’s immersive, engaging, and visual, regardless of whether there are stage effects happening or not. Between Paul Meany’s acrobatic tendencies and visceral command of the stage and Darren King’s unique manipulation of his drum kit (it would be a rare performance indeed, if the drums actually stayed where they had been set up at the start of the show), you never knew exactly what to expect, or how intimately you would become part of the act. Half of that was gone. Now it was time for the music to fill in the gap - and, after all - isn’t that ultimately what it’s about? The PLAY DEAD LIVE tour features the band dressed in white and much of what’s on stage also covered in white, as video images are projected over the band while they perform. The effect varies from venue to venue (I found the images to be negligible in New Haven, yet quite vivid and effective in Brooklyn), but if the four men on stage aren’t bringing it, there’s really no show.
They brought it.
Spotlight… Hutch brings an earthy, solid approach to playing, with enough classic rock chops to supply the power and enough hints of jazz to supply the glory. Hutch wisely makes no attempt to replicate the drum crowd-surfing or other audience-teasers that Darren made such a popular part of the act. Hutch can play, and he plays with passion. Jonathan Allen holds down the bass parts established by Roy with style and a command of the instrument, occasionally turning to what I assume is a bass keyboard for the more electronic moments. The multi-talented Todd Gummerman does yeoman’s work, playing Roy’s very difficult guitar licks, handling synth parts, singing back-up vocals, and who-knows what else. Paul, whether by default or by design, is at the helm, dancing, singing, playing keyboard and Key-tar - the emotional center of the band. Remember the proverbial elephant in the room? I think he was watching Paul from the wings, nodding his head in approval…
Reset… The concerts were pure MuteMath, visiting songs from every album, including the inevitable “Reset” and the crowd-grabbing “Typical.” The new songs are well-received and Meany’s six year old daughter, Amelia, even makes a cameo appearance upstaging dad on “Pixie Oaks,” a song written for her. Aside from Hutch’s more muscular drum sound and Allen’s take on Roy’s busy bass lines, the Vitals material premieres Gummerman’s version of Roy’s tricky Afro-pop style guitar work (no easy task). The lighting is still crazy, the energy is dialed up to 11, and the songs explode from the stage. From the dreamy, melodic “Placed On Hold” to the rave-up of “War” – both from Play Dead - Paul Meany connects with an audience in a way that very few performers can, creating a bond that radiates from the front of the venue to the rear balcony. There’s a palpable expectation that runs through the crowd waiting to erupt at the opening chords of each song. This is where the rubber meets the road - in terms of the songs themselves. If the songs are good, when good musicians play them they’ll resonate with you. That’s why “Typical” works, with or without the show – and that’s what brought us to this rodeo in the first place.
I’ll always remember being in a studio in NYC shortly before Macrosick was to perform ‘showcase’ style before a group of industry people (yes, we sort-of snuck in under false pretenses). This was just after the Reset EP had been completed, and as I was talking to Paul and Darren, we observed that both MuteMath and Macrosick were essentially the same musicians, plus or minus Adam. I asked Paul, “What happens to MuteMath if Macrosick becomes successful?” Paul and Darren looked at each other, laughed, and pretty much said they’d figure that one out when the time came. Now it seems as if another turning point may (or may not) be here - another off-shoot branch of a musical tree that sprouted some seventeen years ago. This we know – Paul Meany has more to give, a talented group of friends and musical allies, and – in one form or another – a career that is still far from over. …and he’s anything but typical.
- Bert Saraco
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