A longtime bastion for touring blues artists, and more recently for ones playing funk, the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton recently instituted a welcomed series of notable jazz/fusion acts. Those include bands led by drummer Billy Cobham (on Sept. 22), guitarist Oz Noy (Nov. 5), and drummer Simon Phillips (March 26, 2020).
Jump-starting the procession on Thursday was a sold-out show by the trio The Aristocrats (guitarist Guthrie Govan, bassist Bryan Beller, and drummer Marco Minnemann). A veritable United Nations of fusion that formed in 2011, the British Govan, American Beller and German Minnemann followed an enjoyable one-hour opening appearance by California-based instrumental trio the Travis Larson Band (with guitarist Larson, bassist Jennifer Young, and drummer Dale Moon).
The Aristocrats then delivered a blazing set of largely improvised instrumental mayhem for the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. The show occurred on the 50th anniversary of the first day of Woodstock, and the headliners practically played as many notes and beats over two-plus hours as the entire Woodstock lineup played over three days.
Their first selection, Minnemann’s “Blues F___ers” from the trio’s self-titled 2011 debut, set the tone to expect the unexpected. Accelerated sections showcased the drummer’s incredible footwork on his double-kick pedals; a slow blues ending was included for the tongue-in-cheek quotient, and Beller comically led the crowd in bullfight cheers in-between, cuing it by raising and lowering his hand.
“Thank you so much, Southeast Florida,” Beller said afterward. “This is the first time we’ve ever played down here, and it’s great to be at the Funky Biscuit for a sold-out show. Is it cool if we play some tunes from our new album, ‘You Know What…??’”
The positive response from the musician-filled, largely male crowd was predictably audible. The latest album’s opening track, another F-bomb pun called “D-Grade F___ Movie Jam,” was actually inspired by a Kentucky music critic’s description of The Aristocrats’ sound. Only partially accurate, the highly improvised, serpentining cut by Beller included intermittent cowbell parts by Minnemann — with the cowbell being hand-held by a roadie named Gino, whose name the crowd chanted in approval.
Govan’s “Spanish Eddie” followed, showcasing the guitarist’s impressive technique and versatility in sections ranging from tranquil to thunderous. Minnemann was again dizzying; the ambidextrous drummer playing 16th notes with his foot on his hi-hat cymbals amid various other time signatures, then leading the trio into an improvised swing midsection before more hummingbird double-kick mania. The drummer’s “When We All Come Together” blended disparate elements of Irish and bluegrass music within a jig feel that included a section in the complex, Frank Zappa-inspired time signature of 23/16.
Beller then verbally introduced his You Know What…? composition “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.” Inspired by his bass equipment being stolen from his storage space, the arresting piece had a happier ending than the story that preceded it. Beller explained how he’d tracked down a larcenous couple responsible for the theft online, traced them to a warehouse seven miles away and waited for them to arrive, then called the police from the parking lot — only to find that his gear was no longer among their stolen items.
“I think they’re still in jail, though,” he added as a kicker.
Throughout the night, the bassist provided the glue that bonded his mercurial bandmates, downshifting his complex bass lines whenever necessary to avoid complete note-and-beat overkill. On Minnemann’s “Get It Like That,” from the debut CD, the bassist’s funk-inspired bass line anchored Govan’s chicken-picking, wah-wah washes, and quotes of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.”
The drummer’s unaccompanied middle solo eclipsed five minutes and boggled minds, including sections played only on his cymbals and even drumstick-on-drumstick, before he and Beller upped the unpredictability factor further by coaxing squawks out of rubber chickens over the microphones.
“We’ve been playing a lot of notes tonight,” said Beller afterward, channeling Captain Obvious, “but is it okay if we chill out and play a sad song?”
“Last Orders,” Govan’s finale on You Know What…?, featured him and Beller playing while seated. The slow, 6/8-timed piece showcased a restrained Minnemann literally taking a back seat to Beller’s melodic soloing and the soulful tones of Govan. The guitarist, part Spinal Tap, part Monty Python, politely introduced his bizarre composition “Kentucky Meat Shower” from the band’s 2015 release Tres Caballeros. His speaking voice as welcoming as his incredible playing, Govan led the trio from a welcoming intro to a marauding finale.
The Aristocrats’ spoken introductions to certain tunes were often as entertaining as the music itself. Minnemann’s “Desert Tornado,” from the 2013 release Culture Clash, included an explanation of how the German drummer didn’t take a tornado warning seriously enough shortly after relocating to California, instead continuing his recording session despite the repeated warnings before finally choosing to drive away from the threat. His guidance through time signatures including 7/8, along with the swirling patterns by Govan and Beller, approximated the ensuing mayhem.
Closing pieces featured The Aristocrats’ whisper-to-scream dynamics and surf music elements, including on Beller’s debut CD composition “Flatlands.” The track embodied everything about the limitless trio: Govan’s underrated guitar heroics, the bassist’s creative, bottom-heavy steadiness, and Minnemann’s tornado-like drumming steering everyone into and out of danger.
In a world of processed, manufactured, cookie-cutter music, The Aristocrats are a welcome 180-degree turn, combining elements of every style and sub-genre. Their controlled chaos involves great risk, yet results in the reward of rare, high-brow improvisation with maximum unpredictability.