Stephane Wrembel @ Merrimans’ Playhouse
(South Bend, Indiana) When a grammy-award winning musician is playing within 45 minutes of you, it’s imperative to get out and see some live music. I purposely kept myself off Spotify and had no idea what to expect from the guitar of Stephane Wrembel, just an idea that it may be spectacular.
Merrimans’ playhouse is situated near the railroad tracks close to the southernmost bend of the St. Joseph River in South Bend, Indiana, home of Notre Dame University. It’s an eclectic college town about two hours from Chicago, and like many things in the Midwest, full of surprises. I almost drove by the venue it until I saw a small chalkboard marquee out front.
Walking up to the building it’s apparent that during the daytime this is an establishment that reconditions, sells, and loves pianos. It’s not a club, it’s not a bar, but a place dedicated to music nonetheless. A dozen pianos fill the front lobby, there is a teapot ready and free waters and tickets are printed by the staff on colored paper. I attended the first of two shows, both sold out, with probably a max capacity of 50 each.
To call this a listening room would not give it the credit it deserves–Merriman’s is like a large living room dedicated to showcasing talented musicians to the music-lovers of South Bend. The comfortable chairs are arranged around small tables and when I entered a half-hour before show the first four rows were filled with musicians sharing wine and stories. My neighbors introduced themselves and we talked of folk music, guitars and expectations. Two guitar players looked like school children and got as excited as a kid waiting for Santa Claus telling me how amazing Stephane would be. This would probably be unlike any show I’d ever seen before.
When I said I hadn’t done any research I was serious. I’d only seen one performance from the Academy Awards–I had no idea what to expect. The band entered from the green room in the basement appearing from the depths to applause. Rhythm guitarist Roy Williams strummed his guitar loudly as he walked past to laughter and more applause. Then Stephane began to speak.
“Please feel free to take photos, video, record this performance,” he began, “It will never be heard again.” I’ll paraphrase the rest, as my soundcloud ate the recording. “What’s the word I’m looking for? We’re birthing it?” The intent was something I’d heard before from performance artist Dixon’s Violin. That we’re all co-creating each performance as it happens. It’s a difference that begins with saying “we’re creating this right now” and ends with the idea that time is sacred. He continued to discuss the next two pieces that they’d perform.
The first would be about the desert and what it means from his perspective. Titled The Voice From The Desert it is the first track on his 2012 CD Origins. He stated that when you go to the desert you realize that it’s a bleak place, an empty place, but yet when you see life you know where it is. When a cactus sprouts, you can see that life in front of you; you know that it exists. It was hard not to think of Burning Man and the way that place changes you in the desert. I was reminded of “Desert Dawns” by The String Cheese Incident and how at some point all artists and humans come to this realization. The music started and the trance began. The first notes sounded as if they were played on a Sitar with a middle-eastern quality evoking memories from a distant past.
The bleakness of the desert became western with a hint of romance. We’re on horseback, and can definitely hear the voice.
The second piece would be about driving and how when you start driving it becomes a state of being; automatic with the energy flowing through you as you cross time zones and continents. Titled Momentum it inspired me to think of the thousands of miles a musician covers to ply his craft.
When I read in his bio that he was taught to play guitar by gypsies in French campsites I believe it. The closest thing I’ve heard to this type of playing is Rodrigio y Gabriella, but it’s nothing like that. To describe what it is you’d have to be present and identify with Stephane’s character and the raw emotion with which he plays.
His press releases speak of a Sinti background which upon further research has connotations of “Gypsy Jazz” and without other words to describe it I think it fits. It’s magical and carries an element of pure saudade that I’ve never heard before.
Stephane took some time to introduce his band which was composed of Rhythm Guitarist Roy Williams,
on the Upright Bass Dave Speranza,
and on drums Nick Anderson.
Each was given several chances to solo throughout the night and excelled in their own right. Drummer Nick Anderson was a master of soft mallets, Dave picked the upright bass like I’d never seen and Roy’s guitar, seemingly identical to Stepane’s, had a voice so alive that he carried the meaning behind each song, using his notes to fill out each part Stephane began.
The next notable moment came when Stephane started describing his song Tsunami which he’d created after the devastation that occurred in Japan. Although he’d never been there “I’m a musician – I can’t afford to travel to Japan,” he shared, he tried to create a mood in which Japan became alive in his dream. Inspired by the creations of Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (creator of Princess Mononoke as well as dozens of others) he set the mood of a peaceful land, traveling west from the deserts to the islands in the Pacific.
What struck me about this piece was the change in tempo, feeling, and fervor that he created to show the Tsunami hitting the land. It’s as if he’s saying, “You may think you know what this song is about, but I’m about to show you.” It goes almost three-quarters of the way through before he unleashes the power of the storm, and then as the storm washes over the land it abruptly recedes leaving you wondering what devastation it left in its path. Chilling.
The use of metaphor to explain his songs and their titles continued with Prometheus who Stephane reminded us, “Stole creativity from the Gods for mankind.” I loved that he translated the meaning of fire to creativity – the spark that ignites within us and allows for intelligence, science, and a reflection of where it came from. What he embodied in this piece was the trickster Prometheus as the song is playful, joyful, and bright in contrast to the deep longing created in some of his other songs.
Bistro Fada, created for Woody Allen’s Film “Midnight in Paris” resulted in much publicity for the film and the soundtrack. It’s romantic to the point, and it’s use of repetition throughout its phrasing causes it to be recalled vividly in the memory.
Stephane and his band ended the show with two tracks, one which you can find here titled Carbon 14 and then Coda, the latter which I can’t seem to find anywhere to share. Carbon 14 brings crescendo after crescendo of movement, energy and flux, punctuated by cymbals, solo phrasing of individual guitar notes showing us that music isn’t just the notes that are played, but the notes that aren’t played – the space between that can be used to seal a song within our spirit. When he described Coda, he simply stated that while in music it may bring a particular piece to an end, here it would bring his show to that end.
I wanted to stay for the next show, just to hear it all again, but with such a small room, it was time to give the next round of peeps their chance. I think there is a bit of gypsy in all of us, and the longing to hear him play again will be in my heart for a long time.
See Stephane Wrembel and his band Live at the following places soon:
2/20: Omaha, NE
2/21: Des Moines, IA
2/22: Iowa City, IA
2/23: Urbana, IL
2/24: Detroit, MI
Then a short break, and they’re on the East Coast, entire list here.
Special thanks to Merrimans’ Playhouse for hosting this event!