The term "super group" may be overused, but a true all-star quartet hit the stage in Milwaukee this past Thursday night. On the third date of their inaugural fourteen date midwest-eastcoast tour, the quartet known as CAB (drummer Dennis Chambers, guitarist Tony McAlpine, bassist Bunny Brunel, and keyboardist Brian Auger) laid down two sets of intense instrumental fusion. With a sound that harked back to the glory days of fusion in the seventies, they thrilled the packed house with their instrumental prowess.
After Brunel introduced the band members, Auger simply stated, "We're not going to say anymore, just play." And play they did. Starting with the funk of the title track from their first CD, CAB (Tone Center), the band demonstrated just how tight they were playing together as they blazed their way through tricky unison passages. This first song set the stage for the evening's music: play the head, let each member solo, repeat the head and out. But rather than being formulaic, each song had it's own distinct personality.
In these days of overused synthesizer patches, it was refreshing to hear Auger playing only a "B3" organ and piano. The veteran British musician came to fame in the seventies with his bands Trinity and Oblivion Express. On "Dennis" from CAB II, Auger delivered a trademark earthy organ solo. The growling organ sound is one that never seems dated, and Auger, along with fellow Brit Keith Emerson of ELP fame, is one of the few players who really made the organ sound distinctive in rock or fusion music.
Chambers, who has played with everyone from Parliament/Funkadelic, John McLaughlin, and John Scofield, is one of the elite drummers in the world. A large contingent of the city's drumming community came down and sat with their jaws hanging open at what they were hearing. When he wasn't laying down a rock solid groove, Chambers was a blur of motion behind his yellow and black drum kit. During one of his solo moments, he raised his left arm in the air while proceeding to play impossibly fast runs between his right hand and bass drum. The crowd shook their heads in disbelief and erupted into cheers.
But not everything was speed and technique. While McAlpine possesses plenty of both, he also demonstrated a great sense of restraint when backing the other soloists. On "Madeline," a song dedicated to his mother, his solo alternated lightning fast runs with slow legato passages that showed a great sense of melody, reminiscent of Allan Holdsworth. Playing a seven-string electric, he was his own man, ripping out intense runs up and down the finger board that would challenge any guitarist.
French bassist Brunel is one of the few fretless bass players to carve out a distinctive sound since Jaco Pastorius came on the scene in the seventies. His bubbling bass was both fluid and nimble, as his slender fingers gently caressed the strings and fretboard, making other bassists look almost brutal in their approach. He held down the bottom end while playing intricate passages, ringing chords, and beautiful harmonics. He started one of his solos playing strictly harmonic melodies that rang out from the fretboard. His touch and technique were amazing.
The closing version of Billy Cobham's "Stratus" had everyone stretch out. The slow groove smoldered with intense heat as the tension grew until Chambers unleashed a furious solo that left the audience stunned. His shear speed is both athletic and musical. This is the type of concert that people will be talking about for some time. Catch them on tour if you can.