Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band’s recent record, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons, is one of the year’s best. It’s just four songs, all of them epic, all of them pulsing with the mesmerizing power of a pagan ritual. As a result of listening repeatedly to 13 Blues, I began to wonder, “Why the heck haven’t I been listening to Silver Mt. Zion before now?” I’m a latecomer to the whole oeuvre of Godspeed You Black Emperor and related Montreal bands like Silver Mt. Zion, but I’m backtracking now to discover all of this great music belatedly.
Saturday (May 31) at Logan Square Auditorium, Silver Mt. Zion showed what orchestral rock can be. As much as I love bands that use strings to play pretty pop music, it’s nice that someone else is using violins and cellos to play a different kind of music – more like a dramatic symphony than a light piece of chamber music. At a few moment, the violins were amplified to sound like guitars, but for the most part, they sounded not all that different from the strings you’d hear at Orchestra Hall, with a particularly deep sound thanks to the presence of a bowed double bass. Singer-guitarist Efrim Menuck is clearly the guiding genius of Silver Mt. Zion, but it did feel like an orchestra (if not exactly a tra-la-la band) with a big sound. The main set closed with the first track from 13 Blues, “1,000,000 Died to Make This Sound,” which opens with the string players singing the title line in a chant, then builds to epic heights, with Menuck passionately singing counterpoint lyrics on top of the chant. For its encore, Silver Mt. Zion played an as-yet-unreleased song titled “There Is a Light,” which was one of the night’s highlights.
As magnificent as the musical performance was, the concert was marred by some profoundly irritating drunks, morons and attention-hungry brats in the audience. (Of course, the vast majority of people in the room were a well-behaved bunch eager to see and hear the band.) There was loud yelling between songs – some of it heckling (sort of), some of it positive, all of it annoying. The contrast between the music and all this intoxicated idiocy was jarring, and it seemed to annoy and confuse Menuck and the other musicians. What a way to welcome some Canadians to Chicago. I was downright embarrassed. Fortunately, the members of Silver Mt. Zion didn’t let it bother them enough to affect their performance.
The first band of the night was Dead Science. I was not impressed; I think the singer’s voice just grated on me. Next up was an improvisational set by Josh Abrams, Jeff Parker and Avreeayal Ra. It was just one long song, with repetitive melodies on Parker’s guitar and Abrams’ instruments (a ghimbri and some sort of gourd harp) cycling around and around and gradually shifting. It was a marvelous piece of musical experimentation, and a great fit with the coming set by Silver Mt. Zion.