District 97 is a band that I discovered much later than I would have wanted. I first heard about them because they were performing at Cruise to the Edge. People all over the ship were raving about them. The ship, mind you, was divided between older progressive rock fans and newer, metal leaning fans, but both contingencies seemed to agree that District 97 was something special. This didn’t just extend to the fans- it’s no secret that District 97 has received some glowing endorsements from prog legends such as the late John Wetton and Bill Bruford, and I know for a fact that many of the musicians on the ship were really impressed after seeing their performance. I got to meet a few members of the band throughout the ship, and got to see them perform in a variety of settings (I wrote about it here- and just remembered that Leslie gave me a brief class on selfie-taking). I remember being extremely impressed, particularly with the lead singer Leslie Hunt, and promised myself that I’d delve into their discography upon return.
When I got back, I started listening to their latest album, In Vaults, released in 2015. It quickly made its way into my heart and mind, with its diverse sonic palette and thoughtful lyrics. I ended up frustrated that this album had been released in 2015, and that I had spent two years not knowing about it! I’m sure many of you music fanatics know the feeling. In Vaults is a quirky, impressive, scintillating gem of an album, and I think it’s a must-have album for a fan of modern prog rock. Give it a listen immediately, and buy it here. But, this is a review of their DVD, not their CD.
The first song they play is the opener from In Vaults, “Snow Country”. It’s impossible not to be drawn to Leslie, who dominates the stage with her truly impressive, passionate vocal performances, which she manages to do all while dancing and punctuating syncopated rhythmic hits with a raised fist or hip swing. Leslie’s many years of performance pay off, and her energy and enthusiasm onstage is completely infectious. Henry Rollins said this of a good frontman: “A great frontman is able to harness and direct the band’s energy and intensity and make it more than just some people playing some songs. He [in this case, she] takes you through the entire set. He commands your attention — you are riveted, moved and utterly transported by the one who is the tip of the spear that delivers that which is more than the sum of the parts.” Many frontmen in prog are also guitarists or musicians, which is fine, but focusing on what Rollins says- Leslie focuses on channeling the band’s energy and giving them a focal point, and it makes the live performance all the more engaging. Even with what sounds like a bit of vocal wear throughout the course of the DVD, Leslie gives 110% percent. And rather than leave the stage during the instrumental passages, she stays on, dancing and cheering for her bandmates. In short, she may be young, but she is in a league with progressive music’s best frontmen (gender neutral, of course).
The band deserves a mention, as each member is tremendously talented. The current lineup is well synched and seem to really enjoy playing together. Drummer Jonathan Schang is particularly impressive, whether he is playing a solid backbeat or doing jazzy, syncopated flourishes between measures. The guitarist, Jim Tashjian, handles the backup harmonies particularly well, and even handles the passages previously sung by John Wetton on their epic and twisted tale about the murderer H.H. Holmes, “The Perfect Young Man”. He manages to approximate Wetton’s trademark smoky voice quite well, while still proving to be a worthy replacement. The keyboardist, Andrew Lawrence, shines throughout the concert, and he even performs a Tony Banks-esque solo following “Takeover”. And bassist Tim Seisser, a relatively new addition, plays his complex parts with visible enthusiasm and glee, while banging his head and making an awesome bass face (don’t worry man, I have an intense drum face).
There are plenty of tracks on here that sound like what pop music would sound like if the universe was just- the catchy, quirky track “Takeover” is both challenging and fun. But, If I were to recommend one song on this DVD to blow minds of all the prog fans reading this, it would be “Alls Well That Ends Well”. The song begins with a quirky arpeggio that leads into a beautiful piano/vocal melody, reminiscent of ELP’s “Trilogy”, and Leslie jumps deftly from note to note and shows off her intimidating jazz chops. Following the chorus, the dissonant arpeggios from the beginning of the songs bristle up against a complex rhythmic pattern. Jonathan Schang’s jazzy soloing is a delight to watch, and plays with finesse and flare. Nothing about this song is simple, and yet it doesn’t feel superfluous. Every flare or quirky passage serves the song. This song is like some weird hybrid between Return to Forever (with Chick Corea), ELP, and Yes, and it’s truly a showcase of their talent.
So in this age of Youtube, streaming songs, and expendable music, why should you buy a DVD of live music? Well, there are a few reasons. First of all, District 97 should probably be much more popular and well-to-do than they are, but they have to juggle dayjobs and perform a lot on the side in order to make ends meet. A purchase of a physical product (such as a DVD) can go a long way. Second of all, while the album is fantastic and really impressive, I really think District 97 is a band to experience in a live setting to get the full effect. This isn’t always the case with progressive music, but it is definitely the case with this band. Leslie’s charismatic performance and the band’s stellar musicianship are a visual treat, and add a lot to the feel of the music. Leslie also reassures us that, yes, we can dance to prog music if we want- we just have to know the time signature changes well.
To close, this DVD is more than worth your time. If you aren’t yet a fan of the band, it will make you a fan of the band. If you ARE a fan of the band, it is an energetic, top notch performance of the songs you love. Before you can buy the DVD, you should familiarize yourself with District 97’s subscription series, Inside the Vault Club. It’s a really clever, Patreon-ish way to support the band directly. So, skip a Starbucks coffee and donate to a deserving band instead, monthly, so that they can continue to make music.”Live At De Boerderij is limited to 200 copies and is only available to Keyholders (Premium Members) of their new subscription series, Inside The Vault Club at http://www.district97.net/insidethevaultclub.”