REVIEW: Moon Hooch at O2 Academy, Oxford

Moon Hooch. Photo credit: © Jay Sansone

Moon Hooch
(O2 Academy, Oxford, 15th September 2016. Review by Alison Bentley)

A late-night busker was singing ‘60s folk songs outside the O2 in Cowley Road (Oxford’s ‘left bank’). Trio Moon Hooch honed their skills busking on the New York subway – and their music was a considerably more urban experience. They played their ‘cave music’ (jazz mixed with house music, played ‘organically’) to a wildly enthusiastic, mixed-age crowd.

Saxophonists Mike Wilbur on tenor and Wenzl McGowen on bari harmonised sweetly – it could have been a few bars of Brahms with Ambient reverb until drummer James Muschler’s techno beats burst in with amazing cymbal detail. This tour is promoting their new album Red Sky, but nothing recorded could prepare you for the sheer visceral energy of their live sound. Each 3-4 minute piece merged seamlessly with the next – subtle changes of groove drew the audience along. Something Else had a bigger back beat, while Wilbur and McGowen faced each other as if their saxes were having a private conversation at high volume. The volume tended to drown the sax subtleties, though the sound improved as the gig went on. The trio met at New York’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, Wilbur bringing his love of avant garde free jazz (he often sounded like Albert Ayler, or David Murray’s wilder moments) to McGowen’s love of house and electronic dance music. The two saxophonists took it in turns to produce synth bass lines from a laptop, often buzzing throatily like a ‘60s Moog, which augmented most of the gig.

Shot had Wilbur on vocals, as distorted as a vocoder, with scrabbling sax multiphonics and hissy disco cymbals. Low 5 had gravelly, angular sax riffs from Wilbur folding into speedy counterpoint lines from McGowen’s tenor, and wild but incredibly focused drumming. #8 had menacing synth bass lines sizzling through the floor, McGowen gesturing wildly as the audience whooped; carefully-controlled stops made space for interlocking sax lines, without ever letting the energy drop. The Thought had a bright ‘60s pop melody played through a grungy filter with a four to the floor groove. Alien Invasion brought an Ibiza feel to fluttering sax arpeggios dripping with delay – the audience, concentrating so hard, were unable to resist dancing.

The beats of Freak Out and Old Techno, a little faster than a heartbeat, stirred adrenaline, the latter with its distorted sax and shrieking electronic effects – a kind of thrash jazz. McGowen improvised a spacey intro to St. Louis, dazzling arpeggios with cavernous delay and Hendrix-like feedback. Muschler’s cymbals built up, getting ready for the power of his bass drum and rockier groove.

Muschler shifted to tablas (he studied them in India) for the dubstep-influenced Oil Sipper. The words of Wilbur’s rap dipped into the bass drops: ‘Mono-culture culture vulture…Uncle Sam scam…the time has come to penetrate…’ – straight into the untrammelled sound of Audrey, every nanosecond filled with extraordinary drum beats and Philip Glass-like repeated phrases. In Tubes (from their 2013 hit album Moon Hooch), McGowen increased the onstage tube count by inserting a long traffic cone into the bell of his sax: cue suitably Neanderthal grunts over massive grooves intensified by moments of total silence. In Rough Sex, McGowen played rhythmic stabs like looped samples. New Techno’s tabla-led Indian overtones were heightened by flashing lights and dry ice; State of Emergency had a poetic urgency rapped by Wilbur, haunted by electronic sounds like falling fireworks. Long sax drones ended the gig, circular breathing in harmony, like eerie calls echoing round a cave, creating an avalanche of free drumming. But the encores left us on a high: huge grooves and a happy dubstep feel from #1.

Moon Hooch reconnect jazz with the dance music of their generation with total commitment, musical virtuosity, wall-to-wall grooves – and a good time.


18 September
Ramsbottom Festival, Bury
20 September Newhampton Arts Centre, Wolverhampton
21 September The Junction, Plymouth
22 September Phoenix, Exeter
23 September CLWB Ifor Bach, Cardiff
24 September Neuadd Ogwen, Bethesda
25 September O2 Academy Islington, London

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