In a sense, the musical ensemble known as “The Books” is a string trio; for the most part, it consists of violin, cello, and guitar. And since their two-concert appearance at Duke’s Sheafer Theater Friday night came under the Duke Performances banner, it would seem apt. But to refer to the group as a string trio would be akin to calling “Emerson, Lake and Palmer” a chamber orchestra; the description may fit, but it does not at all convey the thoroughly contemporary style of music the group plays.
In fact, “The Books” is a completely twenty-first century ensemble. While “strings” does indeed apply to all of their instruments, most of those strings are guitar strings and fully amplified. There is also a keyboard (relative to a piano — also a string instrument), but of all the instruments onstage — and there were indeed a large quantity of them — only the cello and the violin were not “electric,” using electronic amplification. Further, various supplemental instrumentation — including backup vocals — were supplied via a sophisticated array of computerized accompaniment. In addition, there were the complex and entertaining video sequences that accompanied each of the band’s selections. “The Books” is completely modern, and a surprisingly entertaining trio with a unique and individual live performance.
“The Books” is an experimental rock trio that seems to fill its own unique niche; their music is sophisticated, high-tech, and thoroughly entertaining. Even if the music is not your cup of tea, just watching these masterful instrumentalists perform is itself a treat. Further, “The Books” has its own North Carolina connection. In 2003, the band moved to Hot Springs, NC, to record their second album, “The Lemon of Pink.” The group now resides in a Victorian mansion/recording studio in North Adams, MA, where they recorded “Lost and Safe” in 2005. The group took a hiatus until 2009, when a short tour brought the band back into the limelight. Their latest album, “Way Out,” was recorded in 2010 for the label Temporary Residence.
Upon entering Sheafer Theater, we were greeted by a stage full of instruments, backed by a full-sized video screen that, even when dormant, displayed a hint of the carefully sophisticated graphics that would soon be brought to life onstage. And while the tour that “The Books” are on celebrates the release of their fourth album, “Way Out,” it was apparent that this10 p.m. audience — the second sold-out concert of the evening — knew this band well. Comments floated up from the crowd during the show: “I love this song,” “My favorite!” or “This is great!” It was clear that the band has, in a relatively short time, garnered a following for the techno-rock genre of music that is their foil.
Guitarist-songwriter Nick Zammuto is also the group’s principal vocalist; he is joined onstage by partner Paul de Jong (Yong) and newcomer Gene Beck. De Jong supplies a variety of strings but is principally the cellist; Beck is a multi-instrumentalist who plays keyboards, guitar, bass, and violin.
But the aspect of the concert that makes this group such a unique presentation is that, for each song played, there was a particular video tale that went along with the song. More than eye candy — something for the eyes to do while the ears listened — these videos were perfectly matched to each song, so additional accompaniment and backup vocals could also be added to augment the music. This made for a superior, room-filling music that was dense, complex, and highly entertaining.
Some of the video was for our amusement; an example is “I Didn’t Know That,” which, Zammuto said, “We didn’t know it was golf.” As indeed it was. Another, “Tokyo,” was backed by multiple Asian images while Beck played an incredibly complex, frenetic guitar solo.
One example of the complex and high-speed music that filled our ears was the sight of Beck, who played keyboards in between solos on the violin, holding the violin in place under his chin as he moved flawlessly from one instrument to the other.
Another flight of fancy was “Geese,” a soaring piece that included the playing of beautiful strings on violin and cello, augmented by the calls of geese. These calls multiplied as the number of geese on the screen expanded, until finally, when the geese reached a fever pitch, the number concluded.
The group ended their concert with “The Cello Song,” in which Paul de Jong was able to reveal his true talent on the instrument, and the work left us with a true sense of ease and well-being. This group is a one-of-a-kind find. Its music is highly varied, from peaceful to frenetic, and its concerts are a thing of beauty, unlike any concert this reviewer has ever experienced. If you ever get the opportunity to see “The Books,” take it. You will be glad you did.