I love those shows full of surprises. It’s one thing to see a band you know well, where your judgments are on how well the band played on a particular evening. It’s another to learn a bunch of cool stuff along the way. Daryl Stuermer’s stop last night at The Dakota was a perfect example. Judging from how the rest of the full venue reacted to his duo with Kostia on keyboards, I was not the only one who enjoyed the class.
Darly Stuermer is one of those guys who flies a bit under the public radar simply because over a 40 year career he’s stood beside a couple of music’s bigger than life personalities. By his young 20’s he was playing guitar for Jazz Fusion violin maestro Jean-Luc Ponty. After an unexpected audition during a Ponty hiatus in 1978 he stepped into the lead slot for the post Gabriel Genesis. That has led to a life long collaboration with Phil Collins.
When he took to the stage he immediately commented on how much he liked the venue. Opined how he liked it more than Target Center, where he appeared with Collins less than a year ago. A number of patrons quickly confirmed they’d been in attendance. Ironic, that the tables around me were buzzing pre-show about his days with Ponty. So the audience was full of rock aficionados, jazz lovers and big pop fans. I think the immediate take-away was that this was going to be one of those shows where an artist would repackage a sound designed for stadium shows into a small room. Not necessarily louder. But definitely bigger.
From the beginning I was struck by the revelation that here was the sound of all those Genesis hits. The runs long and liquid. The hooks deep. The underlying composition far more sophisticated than the typical classic 80’s pop rock chart buster. Doing away with the vocals allowed us to tune in to aspects of the songs he covered without distraction. In addition to highlighting the stellar guitar work, the added responsibility of also recreating the vocal lines with his hands was mesmerizing. Only a virtuoso would even attempt it.
Let’s go back for a little context to understand where Stuermer came from. As mentioned above, he broke early in his career and was touring the world as a very young man by the mid-70’s. This was a time when rock music didn’t have a lot of labels and sub-genres. There wasn’t anything resembling classic rock simply because the form wasn’t old enough to fit the definition. At the same time, artists from all kinds of backgrounds were coming together and fusing sounds to come up with wildly original combinations. One of those that had a lot of traction was characterized as Jazz Fusion. In many respects, this was the place where some of those more formally educated, more “sophisticated” players decided to add some refinement to the bludgeoning style of straight up rock.
There has always been this niche categorized as college radio music. Or alternative music. It makes sense and it continues to exist for a couple of sociological reasons. First and foremost, young people of college age begin to deliberately move into distinct musical camps. Those that reject the middle of the road pap being fed to them by commercial radio. The stuff all their unenlightened peers are into. There’s a cache to being early to a band, to a movement. At the same time, I’ll freely admit I suffered from a bit of arrogance and snobbery that goes along with it. Isn’t it ironic that fans like us also tend to jettison a band as they find commercial success? We accuse them of selling out. Not because the songs weren’t necessarily as good. More because our musical egos can’t stand the fact that others are now enthusiastically consuming my honeypot.
Sometimes we can never come back. Sometimes it takes a few years for the the unwashed masses to move on to the next fad. Certainly Genesis comes to mind. Today we can all laugh at the shots that South Park took at artists like Phil Collins. Or Stevie Nicks as a goat. Each had produced some huge, ground breaking hits. Each cashed in and the “In” crowd slayed them for it. But bottom line is that you have to first reach some pretty rare air to earn the right to be parodied.
That meeting of jazz and rock, which had purveyors like Ponty, John McLaughlin, Jeff Beck and in many respects Carlos Santana broke this Jazz Fusion genre open in a big way. Forget about lyric first. Listen to the instrument. This was the world Stuermer jumped into and he found himself touring the globe.
Back in the 70’s I had Ponty albums and was wearing out the grooves of the three mid decade Genesis albums. Yet, I’d never recognized any kind of connection between them. After last night, I did. Bands like Genesis were squarely in the camp referred to as Progressive, or Prog Rock. But just like Jazz Fusion, it was simply rock and roll being fused with elements of jazz and classical music. Musicians like Stuermer are chameleons. They cross genres and create new sound. It’s no wonder that it was Jean-Luc Ponty who first handed him a cassette with Trick of The Tale on one side and Wind and Wuthering on the other and told him how much he loved the band.
One of the things I love about The Dakota, and intimate shows in general, is that the audience and artist can interact in a fundamental way. It’s not just energy flowing back and forth, it’s stories and sometimes actual conversations. When handled in a graceful manner, this is where the learning and surprises surface. You get a look behind the mirror and feel like you’ve experienced the real person. As opposed to the rock star persona.
Despite all the time spent on huge stages, Stuermer has maintained much of the Midwestern humility with which he was born. That was one of those surprises. I thought all the Genesis guys were Brits. His story of how he came to join the band and forge his relationship with Phil Collins said a lot about him. When Ponty took a touring break, Stuermer got a call asking if he wanted to do a Genesis audition in New York in late 1978. When he agreed, the band sent him a cassette with five songs to learn. When he showed up at the audition, only Mike Rutherford was waiting for him.
Rutherford plugged in the cassette and had Stuermer play a couple of minutes of each song before telling him that he had the gig. Genesis had auditioned 20 UK guitar players and 5 in the US; a number of them were big names. When Stuermer asked why he had been selected he was simply told: “Because you showed up ready.” Not only a great life lesson but indicative about the manner in which he approaches his craft. Prepare and deliver.
Accompanying him on keys was Russian born Kostia, a graduate of The St Petersburg Conservatory. In 1989 during Glastnost, he hopped a freighter. Despite constant sea sickness, he crossed the Atlantic, traversed the canal into the Great Lakes and ended up in Milwaukee. Shortly after his arrival, Stuermer was introduced to him at a party. Kostia was a Russian speaker with some skill in both German and Polish. Yet when he shook his hand he managed to say the only thing he’d learned in English: “I Like Genesis”. Some months later, Stuermer found himself in a recording session with Kostia and was blown away. “I haven’t been able to get rid of him since!”
Thursday’s show covered the waterfront. Mixed with a number of originals were plenty of tasty covers. First and foremost, were those of Genesis and Phil Collins, some of which he collaborated on. The combination of In That Quiet Earth and Ripples was simply stunning. His versions of Sting’s Message In A Bottle, Peter Gabriel’s Shock The Monkey and the closing number of Jeff Beck’s Freeway Jam demonstrated the remarkable skills of both musicians.
One of the other delights for some of us was discovering that Stuermer is a guitar nerd. Not surprising perhaps. You aren’t going to see a sideman on a major stage take the time to talk about his guitar and what he likes about it. Ironically, I’d already decided to mosey up to the stage after the show to check his rig. I was very curious how he achieved such a distinctive tone. The answer is that he played all but one song on a Godin DS1 prototype guitar. DS as in Daryl Stuermer. It was everything he wanted. So they built it for him. Run through a Mesa Boogie amp with a lot of Wah peddle. My notes indicate that his tone reminded me of a glass of high end root beer on a hot summer day. Full, smooth and squeezed sweet. Great guitar players maintain an endless search for their own tone perfection. Stuermer has found his.
Time after time, I find myself walking out of The Dakota with a smile on my face and happy ears and belly. Tough to beat an encore of original I Will Remember You and the mega hit Turn It On Again. World class stuff. Night after night. For an old Genesis fan, last night was a delight.