Guitarist Nick Robinson’s feet are grounded when he starts playing a hopeful riff, gritty and warm, suggesting a vast musical space around him. He gives drummer Andy Porta an affirming nod, and Porta responds, counting in the rest of the band with his hi-hat.
As Porta cracks open the beat on his kit, bassist Erick Alfisi puts his head down, his entire body bobbing to the beat, dropping the notes that guitarist Sam Stauff lunges off of. He plays like an athlete, moving in grand gestures that are matched by his playing, precise and strong. And so “64 Bristol” is off, its melodic ideas rising and falling on driving cascades of rhythm that always gain in energy, right through to the final, unified chords at the end.
Now entering their second decade as a band, the members of Wess Meets West don’t all live in the New Haven area anymore. But the band as an entity still calls the Elm City home, and has the performing track record to prove it, having played Three Sheets, the Outer Space, and Toad’s Place in recent memory. Moreover, they carried New Haven’s flag elsewhere on their latest tour, which led them to Chicago and to Audiotree, a music company there best known for its in-studio performances. Which is what led to the creation of Audiotree Live.
The recording covers songs from Wess Meets West’s previous albums, Barricades and When the Structures Fail Us, so it serves almost as a greatest hits record for new listeners to the band who are starting to explore the band’s sound. But there’s a lot here for longtime fans, too. Apparently the Audiotree sessions went well, because the band sounds terrific, playing together as old pros who seem to get younger with every second as they play with the chemistry and urgency that the songs demand, and the music carries them off.
Audiotree Live also shows definitively that Wess Meets West’s long, complicated compositions aren’t studio trickery; it’s just that the people in the band are really, really good musicians. After a particularly emotional passage in “Is There Anything Else, Charles?” Robinson works through an aching melody while Stauff briefly abandons his guitar, picks up a pair of drumsticks, and takes his place beside Porta to double up on the kit with him, expanding the beat even further. “These Will Be Stories” finds the band augmenting its sound with electronics, leaning that much more into the cinematic tendencies that make Wess Meets West’s stuff so compelling.
Wess Meets West labels its own music as “defiantly optimistic,” which is as good a description as anything I can come up with. There’s another pretty good word for it, too: “beautiful,” in an unabashed, even romantic way. For all its complexity, Wess Meets West’s music is always emotionally direct, honest, and engaging. It’s music for taking a long trip in a fast car to a part of the country you’ve never seen, for standing on a high peak — even, dare I say it, for falling in love, like you can only at the end of summer.