By Carl Sessions
Taken out of context, finger skateboarding and old family videos may appear inconsequential and unrelated. Yet in context, flashed onscreen during Zammuto’s wildly-creative performance, propelled by snipped, refined and distorted synthesizers and vocals, overlaid by pulsing guitar and en pointe drums, these two images made all the sense in the world.
Opener Snowblink started the show in Gardner Monday night almost an hour late. In an understated, almost meek fashion, they charmed the audience of 30.
“Iowa is three-quarters vowels,” guitarist Dan Goldman observed as Snowblink took the stage.
Lead singer Daniela Gesundheit’s mellifluous soprano harmonized seamlessly with Felicity Williams’ own ethereal tones on the first song, a tune about traveling to observe sea urchins, dark skies and black mountains.
Snowblink’s music is reminiscent of a calm cabin in the deep timber woods or a slowly-thawing mountain tundra. However, this mountain tundra became scene to a heavy spring rain when drummer Dan Gaucher brought them all to an energetic frenzy.
“Don’t forget you’re made of earth sun,” Gesundheit mysticized. “Don’t forget to pray for surf.”
North American natural scenes seem to be Snowblink’s go-to muse, and they bid respect appropriately, capturing the delicate interrelation between man and wilderness in all of their songs. Even the guitar that Gesundheit plucked was outfitted with small antlers. After the show, Gesundheit enthusiastically shared her favorite camping places in Canada: “I’m from California originally…[but] my main inspiration is the Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.”
As Snowblink played on, the crowd swelled to 40—an impressive turnout given it was a Monday night. This influx brought new energy to the band, and Gesundheit and Williams jingled bells and yipped like coyote pups on “Inner Mini Mississippi,” one of the night’s stand out songs.
As they were finishing their set, Goldman admitted that he knew little about Iowa and asked, “What should I know Grinnell?”
A single shout rose above the others to answer, “Bison!”
Ever the naturalists, members of the band smiled and noted that they passed a “bison farm” on the way to Grinnell.
Zammuto then took the stage to give one of the year’s best shows.
Zammuto derives its name unapologetically from band member Nick Zammuto. His current project sounds remarkably similar to Zammuto’s prior band, The Books (who played in Grinnell in 2005 and 2010), partly because the way Zammuto’s vocals are mechanized and overlayed on a chopping, rhythmic instrumental bed and partly because of the congealed array of alien sounds that are pasted throughout.
Together with his talented bandmates playing keyboard, drums and guitar, and a video projection on the wall behind them, Zammuto led Grinnell through a strangely interactive excursion.
Their first song, “The Shape of Things to Come” started with a simple bass line, then gradually became more complex as an assortment of claps, whistles and xylophone notes built the song from the ground up.
“But the moon is up, don’t care what I see,” Zammuto crooned in a mechanically-pinched voice. “It’s the situation, saturation.”
At the peak of the song, the entire band was moving in silent rapture and cast long shadows across the stage. A seamless movie projected overhead, documenting a car as it traversed palatial mountain passes.
Between songs, the band joked with the audience. Sometimes the band plunged into songs without warning while at others they gave brief introductions.
“This next one is with auto-tune and it’s about finger skateboards,” Zammuto prefaced one. Before another he noted, “watch for the burning Christmas trees.”
Part of what made the show so impressive was the way Zammuto’s layered songs synthesized with the videos. Christmas trees in living rooms, recorded on home security footage caught fire repeatedly. The synth became heavier and faster as the fire moved from conifer to couch.
The show became more metaphysical and surreal as it progressed. At one point the video flickered between a cartoon graphic depicting a cartoon erection slowly ballooning upwards, a hard boiled egg being sliced slowly and churning hunks of meat being pushed into sausage. The videos, however, had no meaning outside of the music—simply there to accent to the band’s creative wanderings.
On another tune, jungle mallets intertwined with crisp drums and a subtly-commanding voice asking you to close your eyes.
Unfortunately, Grinnell didn’t match Zammuto’s enthusiasm. Despite there being a 30 rack of High Life left in the fridge, dancing was minimal and those on the outskirts of the audience watched the amorphous production with distress.
The highlight of the evening was Zammuto’s penultimate instrumental, “Classy Penguin,” a song from The Books. Zammuto explained before playing it that the video was footage of all of the band members’ childhoods. As an oddly nostalgic bass line and fuzzed violin played in the background, these films took center stage: babies waddling, toddlers flipping, kids laughing, teenagers playing music. Instead of looking at the audience, Zammuto’s members gazed upon their past with nostalgia. In these moments, thanks to the reigned-in oddities and blissful melodies combined with universal human development, Zammuto made the metaphysical corporal and created a night to remember.