Stick Men + Sonar @ The Garrison, Toronto, 27 August 2017

Time to get sticky! Stick Men are a progressive rock act where all three band members stick it to conventional rock norms by playing wielding sticks – two Chapman sticks and drum sticks. Formed in 2007 by Chapman stick player Tony Levin of King Crimson fame (who has appeared on over a whopping 500 albums), the band has evolved from a solo project to a fully-fledged line up with fellow King Crimson bandmate Pat Mastelotto and German master musician, producer and composer Markus Reuter, and has delivered five albums to the prog universe. Only last seen live in Toronto last year, this trio return to the city, and The Garrison is particularly busy tonight.

Support comes from Switzerland’s Sonar, made up of four prog rock instrumentalists and conceived in 2010. The first thing to note is the fantastically smooth tone of the instrumentation, each instrument perfectly complementing the others and flawless arrangements. Subtle atmosphere underpins the leading instruments and despite being instrumental, each set piece conducts a logical narrative.

There’s a mathematical execution, diving through precarious time signatures and highly schooled methodologies yet wholly accessible to non-musicians and a far cry from frivolous pretensions. There is an abundance of jazz influence in their techniques, encasing the music in nuance and sophistication. The guitars’ jazz inflections provide a unique tone that is warm yet cautiously tense. On stage, the band members are courteous, professional and funny – so ineffably Swiss. It takes them no time to win the adoration of the audience and rightfully so. Blessed with impeccable sound, this is a great spectacle of contemporary prog rock.

After an extremely brisk and efficient ten-minute change over, the headliners Stick Men get stuck into their deliciously progressive set with ‘Hide the Trees’ from their 2013 album ‘Deep’. The track is off-kilter but coherent, wading through curious and exploratory moods. This showcase of talent is staggering but never veering into technical redundancies or meandering masturbation. Markus Reuter employs his own creation – the trademarked Touch Guitar – to make the most of fretboard tapping like a Chapman stick. ‘Cusp’, ‘Schattenhaft’ and ‘Crack the Sky’ follow with impeccable delivery.

With two King Crimson members in their ranks, it’s not surprising that the three-piece pay homage to the English prog rock legends. A cover of Robert Fripp’s ‘Breathless’ is aired out, Levin having played on it. The song on its own has a sound not too dissimilar to the Stick Men so it’s straight-forward for them to incorporate tonight. The King Crimson classic ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two’ is also covered and is a real treat to hear live in such a compact venue that the original band would never perform in. Mike Oldfield’s ‘Mirage’ is covered as he is one of Reuter’s heroes – a very dazzling addition.

Between each track, there is entertaining stage banter and despite the big names that the band has been involved with and the universe-sized amount of skill they possess, they come across as incredibly down-to-earth and modest. The two tracks with vocals tonight – ‘Plutonium’ and the title track of last year’s ‘Prog Noir’ – feature Levin’s velveteen voice espousing clever and quirky lyrics. Aside from the covers, and ‘Open’, only music off last year’s release and ‘Deep’ are on the setlist tonight.

The King Crimson number ‘Sartori in Tangier’ is an unabashed display of virtuosity and closes the main portion of the set. The ovation of the crowd sees Stick Men back for more, finishing the night with a final King Crimson cover – ‘Level Five’, another excellent execution. This was such an overwhelmingly brilliant concert with an abundance of skillful invention, music history and good natured humour, a rare collection at a rock show indeed. To compound their friendly approachable stance and obliterate any rock star attitude, the band invites the audience to join them for autographs and photos. What a nice bunch of ultra-talented guys!

[Feature image credit: Caricature/illustration by Maria Picassó i Piquer – Illustration]