Those first few seconds of this concert by The Necks, the moments where Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton and Tony Buck were waiting for one of their number to do come up with an idea, felt even longer than usual. A sizeable number of acquaintances were all within a couple of feet of me, some of whom had never seen The Necks live before, and some of whom had been more than a little persuaded to attend by my increasingly vocal enthusiasm for them. I’d probably even called The Necks the “best live band in the world” on more than one occasion. During those seconds of silence, I began to worry. What have I done? I’ve brought a load of people out to see a performance which could be quite unlike anything else they may have seen. A performance which could feature three men doing very little for a couple of hours. Another friend of mine, a fan of both jazz and minimalism, finds The Necks boring live. Was I wrong? Would they hate me? We waited. I worried. Then they began.
And they way they began encapsulated everything that I love about The Necks. After that five second pause (which felt like five minutes), Chris Abrahams played a slow piano melody, an odd and unresolved figure, more a question than a statement. After a minute or so, Lloyd Swanton provided a confident answer on bass, a repeated two note riff. The answer was so authoritative that the initial question was forgotten, and instead Swanton’s simple device became the fulcrum of the whole first set. Buck started gently hitting a cymbal with a brush and shaking a bell, and Abrahams found his own elegant two note solution. Side by side, any two consecutive four bar sections would have looked pretty much identical. But as they shifted imperceptibly over the remainder of the set, you’d find yourself somewhere new without realising how you got there. The significance of any change you did spot became magnified (Swanton playing the same riff down a register, or arco as opposed to pizzicato, or Abrahams adding a strange new sound via a single prepared piano string note) as you waited to see how the others would respond. The opening set was pleasingly symmetrical, ending with Swanton playing a figure which sounded like the mirror image of the opening one, and Abrahams once more playing fragmented piano lines.
After this, I couldn’t wait for the second set. As tends to be the case when I see The Necks, if one set is meditative, the other is more propulsive, with Tony Buck if not bossing the others (such a concept would be unthinkable in the context of a collective performance by The Necks), at least being gently persuasive. This was indeed to be the more rhythmically exciting of the two, even if the obsessive compulsive in me preferred the first set’s delightfully and ingeniously simple structure. After having spent forty minutes merely tapping a cymbal and shaking a bell, Buck was now to spend most of this one repeatedly, and loudly, slapping his tom with a wooden block. This inspired the other two to high energy improvisation, building to a dense, and increasingly tense middle section of bass flurries and rippling piano (Abrahams by now just running his hands up and down the piano, as if doing breast stroke). We waited for it to be broken; finally the release came in the form of possibly the greatest kick drum drop I’ve heard, Buck blowing the set wide open with three loud beats, grinning from ear to ear as he did.
Not that the other two would have noticed his expression: Abrahams had his back to him, and Swanton had his eyes closed, deep in concentration. No visual signals, just the closest of close listening, thinking about how to develop the piece, and waiting for the opportunity to do so. The set wound to a close, we waited for the last piano notes to decay, and we rose to our feet. I didn’t need to wait long for the others to confirm just how good this had been.