If ever there was a band that gave credence to the term “math rock,” it has to be the Pittsburgh instrumental band Don Caballero. And this particular brand of math rock has little to do with your eighth-grade algebra. We’re talking advanced topology, boundary functions—the sort of math that mere plebians dare not attempt.
The last time they played here, they left onlookers agog as they built up lengthy, drum-led improvisational frenzies. The most peculiar thing was that, to see them walking around pre-show, you’d never have guessed that they were capable of such deconstruction. Two of ‘em were bumbling around Jay’s, sticking pencils up their noses, trading sticks of gum and so forth. I thought they were some engineering students from Bozeman or something. But, to my great dismay, these selfsame nerds took the stage and pulverized me into a fine powder, dealing out the most perplexing riffles and creating swarms of sonic derangement. Their sound can become quite disorienting as some parts culminate in each member playing in his own time signature. And one of the guitar players had his rig strapped so high it could have been a chin rest. I later learned that this was so he could pull off the fingertapping moves that make up some of their songs.
And in case you somehow perceived them as some delicate Wes Montgomery jazz combo, consider the fact that drummer Damon Che pounds his drums so hard that he has to nail his drums to the stage. This band is clearly Che’s braintrust. A band led by its drummer may seem like the tail wagging the dog, but everyone in the band is obviously on the same page and Che inspires them to great heights, hollering out changes mid-song, or reeling the band back in from a particularly stormy passage.
This band’s live show, I think, would serve as a valuable lesson to students of pedagogical improvisation. (Sounds oxymoronic, I know, but people do actually “teach” improvisation). Rather than noodling around in some arcane Aeolian scale, the guitarists employ any number of methods to get the desired feel across. This may include the two-handed fingertapping mentioned earlier or dragging the strings across a nearby cymbal or microphone stand. But unlike some improvised music, the emphasis here is on the ensemble, as opposed to trading off solos. Setting up the dialogues between the instruments in this way has a multiplier effect whereby the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In lieu of lyrics, the band gives some of their songs incredibly cumbersome titles like, “In the Absence of Strong Evidence to the Contrary, One May Step Out of the Way of the Charging Bull.” Now how the hell am I supposed to yell out for that one?
Don Caballero plays Jay’s Upstairs with Convocation Of on Monday, July 10 at 10 p.m. Cover TBA.