Yonatan Gat Plays with Paradigms At the State Street Pub
It’s a tenuous connection at best, but Yonatan Gat’s approach to music reminds me of an Israeli film. One called Alila. Although most famous for being done in only 23 shots, an accomplishment since eclipsed by Iñárritu’s Birdman which had only one shot, it is more instructive in the way it portrays Israel as defined by community. While this is perhaps a synthesis of the surrounding Mediterranean culture and the kibbutz communal living spaces, it is a key part of Israel’s identity. Its origins can be traced to before the Second World War and… Oh, right, I was going to connect Alila with Yonatan Gat at some point. Well, I can’t help but see this deep sense of community appearing in the way Gat conducts his concerts.
For those of you not in the know, Gat doesn’t use the stage. He sets up instead in the middle of the venue’s dance floor and plays from there, encouraging the audience to gather around him. The message of the gesture, the basic message at any rate, is clear: I don’t hold myself apart from you. This is your music as much as it is mine. Even so, Yonatan Gat’s talent alone does set him apart from the rest of us. Musically at any rate. Something that he handily proved with his performance at the State Street Pub.
Along for the ride were local band VV Torso, who likewise showed the audience what real punk sounds like.
Yonatan Gat, the star of the show in case you weren’t paying attention, is an Israeli guitarist and former member of the bend Monotonix. Began in the mid-2000s, Monotonix were modern Israel’s take on the constellation of genres that we collectively label punk. Certainly a natural fit, punk is, considering the general instability and uncertainty of life on the Red Sea. As with much in modern Israel, they took it to extremes. Particularly their performances, which frequently resulted in so much chaos that venues either called the police or cut the band’s juice. After every venue in Israel barred Monotonix from performing, they began to tour Europe and the Americas out of necessity. However, they caught on there and became quite successful. Unfortunately, the band broke up after just a few years.
Yonatan Gat, the Montonix’s guitarist, wasn’t quite done with music. In 2013, he began his solo career, eventually signing with Joyful Noise records. He has since toured extensively, bringing his unique sound wherever he goes.
As mentioned above, VV Torso is a local act. Beginning as a way for frontman Natty Morrison to extend his poetry, it eventually morphed into a full band. For now, VV Torso generally opens for the punk bands that pass through Indiana.
Since I had no expectations when it came to VV Torso, they surprised me in the best way. From their opening salvo, I knew I wasn’t dealing with a bunch of punters. Indeed, their grinding, post-punk rumble is probably one of the best sounds I’ve heard coming of Indy recently.
From the reviews I was able to find, critics often compare them to Protomartyr or David Yow. I would agree that this is accurate, but I would also think that the Montreal-based band Ought makes a good comparison as well. The angular, jangling melodies with just a dash of noise are, if not dead ringers, then pretty similar. I’m not, of course, calling them clones. Oh no, brothers and sisters, VV Torso definitely has its own identity.
Sturm und Drang
You see, there’s more to their sound than just the vaguely melodic noises they make on their instruments. What really gives them their flavor is frontman Natty Morrison’s tormented, howling vocals. Every time he sings the man sounds like he’s on the verge of a nervous break down of some kind. His lyrics are a lot like his singing. In true punk form, Morrison is patently unafraid to take on issues that most artists either won’t or will only take on indirectly. Take his single “Boy”, for example, which deals unflinchingly with patriarchal oppression. Mind you, it’s nothing you haven’t heard before, but his raw, almost unhinged, delivery infuses the message with a new urgency.
Since Morrison sees himself as a poet before anything else, his style makes sense. Passion is the basis of live poetry readings and performances even at the most low-rent slams. Particularly if you buy into the Romantic idea of the half-mad, tormented Byron. Even you don’t, the anger and passion in his lines gives the performance an authenticity that enthralls.
Frankly, I could have gone home well-satisfied after just seeing VV Torso, but that would have been a crying shame.
As was his custom, Gat set up his kit on the dance floor rather than the stage. His opening words were simple: “please use the room as you like”. Besides reflecting various punk ideologies, which seek to remove barriers between performer and audience, this is also an extension of Montonix’s performance style. Remember when I discussed how infamously wild Montonix’s shows tended to get? They got that way because Monotonix wasn’t acting alone, the audience was in on it as well. In fact, the last time that Yonatan Gat played the State Street Pub, as a member of Monotonix of course, the night ended with the audience and the band leaving the Pub and trying to use the cars in the parking lot like trampolines. Actually, did I say extension? That was wrong, this is Gat dialing his antics way, way back.
A Man of the People
Nonetheless, not being afraid to really share the music with your audience is a radical move for any musician. For one thing, it shatters the illusion that you and your listeners are any different. Instead, it carries the implicit message that the only difference between you and the people listening to you is that they haven’t yet picked up a guitar. More importantly, sharing the space with the audience says that the music belongs to them as well. Share and share alike. If nothing else, it’s a major change from the inherent elitism in most performance styles.
Oh right, performance. I need to talk about the actual music at some point, don’t I? Well, let me begin by saying that Gat’s sound isn’t easy to describe. In the broadest terms, it’s what results from blending elements of punk rock, free jazz, and psychedelic rock together. In a meat grinder. Useing more specific terms? Hell if I know, man. I could talk about jagged guitar melodies that seem to move at right angles to the rest of the song. I could talk about the thudding, formless percussion that wanders in and out of the structure established by Gat’s guitar. But doing so would fall frustratingly short of conveying the just how different Gat’s sound is from almost anything else on the market. Even so, I will at least try.
Gat typically takes an improvisational approach to his music. Now, this isn’t in the sense that he just stands there and plinks our random melodies as he goes. Instead, he has a definite structure in mind when he plays. Still, the improv lends a certain unpredictability to his music that makes his performances interesting in ways that most performances aren’t. It’s like watching a suspense movie, you’re never sure where the plot’s going, so you hang on every line of dialogue or edit. Of course, Gat doesn’t create that much tension, but it remains a decent comparison nonetheless.
He certainly had the audience’s attention. In fact, the anthro-whorl that formed around him was so tight that it’s a wonder he didn’t have a claustrophobia-induced panic attack. Even so, I have to say that people kept a respectful distance and let him work. I guess if you like the sounds, you generally don’t interfere with the guy who’s making them.
Oh, sounds. One thing I forgot to mention: Gat’s material is pretty light on the lyrics. There’s some sung Hebrew here and there or course, but it doesn’t tend to last long. Maybe few measures, and then it’s gone. I’d imagine that Gat, being a guitarist, doesn’t have much reason to give the human voice any special priority. To him, it’s just another instrument. He puts it in sections that he feels vocals would enhance things, but that’s it.
Gat ran through his set a lot quicker than I thought he would, since improv tends to meander. Frankly, I prefer the efficient approach. Mostly because once you turn your show into an extended jam session, I’m of the opinion that you’re wasting the audience’s time. Which, come to think of it, is probably why Gat’s parsimonious about time. After all, He respects his audience enough to perform with them, so he likely respects their time as well.
Once again, the State Street Pub proves it can attract some of the most innovative artists around. Yonatan Gat threw us one hell of a show and VV Torso was a more than worthy opening act. Other than that, there really isn’t much else to say.
Keep Listening Everybody.