District 97 are a musical cognoscenti collective of polymaths playing in a unique style and are four studio albums in.
Each one has built on the previous with last release, Screens, seeing the biggest line-up change yet. New boys Andrew Lawrence (keyboards) and Tim Seisser (bass) complete the quintet with Jim Tashjian (guitar, backing vocals), founder and drummer Jonathan Schang, and American Idol finalist Leslie Hunt, heading this band with her unique approach in the singing department.
The album had a short run of promotional gigs before the Covid-19 franchise muscled in, but one was so well recorded that is was deemed appropriate to turn it into a live showcase album to at least give their fans a taste of what they could have won if shows were allowed.
Recorded at Europe’s famous prog rock venue Cultuurpodium Boerderij in the Dutch city of Zoetermeer in October 2019, from what appears to be the output of the front of house sound desk, or a board recording as the Americans say, any crowd effects would be ‘picked up’ by open mics (drum kit, vocals, etc.) so the overall sound has a closed in feel, but that is not a criticism only an observation.
Before taking this album out for a good long walk (one knackered Dachshund) a preview showing of a couple of the many YouTube live videos is recommended to portend the aural experience.
One’s imagination can then fill in the gaps as you picture the stage and especially the central figure of Leslie Hunt. She is a fine musician herself, but sticks to singing and movement in this band. Obviously in these enlightened times the word “sexy” will offend the hyper-analytical section of society and will be replaced with “Sassy” (at least until that too becomes an affront…) because Leslie brings a presence that is lively, bold, and full of spirit. Dancing along to the complicated meters whilst emphasising extra beats makes for a great visual focus for this music. Imagine Derek Shulman in a Duck Tape bra… well maybe not, but you get the picture.
This band make you feel like you’ve found an exclusive club that includes membership accolades from Bill Bruford and Mike Portnoy and have even released a live album of King Crimson covers featuring the late John Wetton as special guest.
Which brings us to the album itself. Anyone who bought into Screens will know what a progression it was since In Vaults which could be perceived as a better album, but these mavericks refuse to keep to the very same formula and the album is performed in its entirety on CD1, played and sung to perfection.
As per the album, the synth side is largely replaced with a lot of electric piano, with the bass guitar played more in a jazzy vein. The drums are well recorded and certainly show the Bruford influence. One of Screens‘ highlights was the almost Country slow rock of Bread & Yarn, the duet Leslie performs with the guitarist’s Nashville tinged voice. The rural sound is machine-gunned away, however, as a lead bass ending Squires away like its defending with a tank. A very interesting track.
Talking of this hirsute jazzer, his short After Orbit Mission is a little lentil farty here, but as it launches into fusion-tinged Shapeshifter all is forgiven as this track is a District 97 signature dish, delivered with fully loaded sides. Quite remarkable to hear this played flawlessly in the live situation. Ghost Girl, the 13:44 paranormal update to debut album’s Mindscape, shows not just what a great singer Leslie is, but what a terrific story teller she is too. It’s the kind of song that causes metronomes to look for different employment, and the band must have their heads full of numbers. A very good companion to the mother album.
CD2 is perhaps the one with the most interesting tracks as it begins with a brand new lockdown recording called Divided We Fall followed by a minute and a half of Lennon’s Jealous Guy sung by guitarist Jim Tashjian. This man is a prestigious talent in his own right, his vocal prowess will surely mean a solo record is on the cards one day. Perfect renditions of In Vault‘s Snow Country and Takeover follow (with A Lottery coming later). First album’s Termites is released from the nest, but then the final nine tracks are all covers, but you’d be amazed by what they are.
From the debut UK album, Presto Vivace showcases Andrew Lawrence’s keyboard skills whilst Jonathan Schang’s drumming is world class. There’s no showyoffness here, as that only lasts a minute and literally morphs into Genesis’s Back in N.Y.C. where Peter Gabriel’s original street punk is replaced by Leslie Hunt’s spitting female empowered gang leader vocal, making the song her own with an almost Broadway musical swagger.
Two next from the Bruford album One Of A Kind. This is the lads playing what must be one of their favourite albums for the sheer hell of it, the smiles on the band of virtuoso players cuts a smile-shaped furrow as you listen. Tim Seisser plays Jeff Berlin’s original fretless part as a real homage to that piece. The Alice in Wonderland inspired Fainting in Coils follows with the retro electric piano a joy. Keeping with the love of all things Bill, Yes’s Long Distant Runaround is pitch perfect until Crimson’s Red and the gone but never forgotten John Wetton collaborate on 21st Century Schizoid Man. Zeppelin III gets a look in with Out On The Tiles, then finally to make sure the audience are dripping wet as they wander ears ringing into the Dutch night, Leslie and co. encore out with a double-speed edition of Walking On Sunshine – clapping and whoops ensue as the band Katrina and Wave goodbye. Blimey! that was good! Pints of Oranjeboom now required…
Live albums are a Marmite moment to some but have been around as long as, well Marmite and like that Danish banned product, they are packed with added goodness to, as a rule, bring a healthy reminder of that memorable concert. The Pandemic, however, has meant that the live experience hasn’t even been thinly spread, it’s been completely missing. Therefore, if you’re a District 97 fan then listening to them live on disc is the nearest you’re going to get and if you can’t see the actual film, the Screenplay is the perfect efficacious alternative.
01. Forest Fire (5:20)
02. Sheep (6:57)
03. Sea I Provide (2:53)
04. Bread & Yarn (8:56)
05. Trigger (4:44)
06. After Orbit Mission (1:28)
07. Shapeshifter (5:58)
08. Blueprint (4:31)
09. Ghost Girl (13:44)
Time – 54:31
01. Divided We Fall (4:33)
02. Jealous Guy (1:20)
03. Snow Country (6:27)
04. Takeover (5:48)
05. The Actual Color (5:57)
06. A Lottery (5:47)
07. Termites (6:28)
08. Presto Vivace (1:12)
09. Back in N.Y.C (5:36)
10. Travels with Myself-And Someone Else (6:59)
11. Fainting in Coils (6:42)
12. Long Distance Runaround (3:34)
13. Red (6:44)
14. 21st Century Schizoid Man (Live with John Wetton) (5:02)
15. Out on the Tiles (3:41)
16. Walking On Sunshine (3:27)
Time – 79:17
Total Time – 133:48
Leslie Hunt – Lead & Backing Vocals
Andrew Lawrence – Keyboards, Additional Guitar
Jim Tashjian – Guitar, Backing Vocals
Tim Seisser – Bass
Jonathan Schang – Drums, Percussion
Record Label: Cherry Red Records
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 26th March 2021