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Live review: Adding up the Bad Plus

March 7, 2009 | 11:55 am

"How do you sleep at night knowing you're so awesome?" a voice from the front of the crowd calmly asked toward the end of the Bad Plus' sold-out show at the Mint on Friday night.

The band shared a laugh at the question, but given what the trio and new vocalist Wendy Lewis had shown up to that point, it was easy to forgive the hyperbole.

Best known for chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter jazz reworkings of indie and classic rock standards through its own eccentric and often staggeringly skillful lens, the Minneapolis-based trio worked through its instrumental first set of shape-shifting originals and modern classical covers. The set was highlighted by a reworking of Ligeti's "Fém (Etude No. 8)," which popcorned through a tangled, stutter-stop interplay, and meshed perfectly with a band that once covered Aphex Twin. Hinging on the time-bending feats of agility by maniacal drummer Dave King, the songs at times built to a thunderous climax that lifted King and pianist Ethan Iverson out of their seats to follow where inspiration led.

But it was the evening's second set that showcased the Bad Plus' new secret weapon: Minneapolis indie rock singer Wendy Lewis.

The notion that the trio would take on a vocalist for its new record was initially cause for some concern -- how could a band that took such chances with time and structure even find room for words? But hearing Lewis mesh with the Bad Plus is an often-breathtaking example of sympathetic musicianship, exemplified by a languid, impressionistic take on Nirvana's "Lithium," where Lewis' sharp voice stretched out select passages to uncover a new level of seasick melancholy to a song that is easy to take for granted after years of radio airplay.

A cover of "Comfortably Numb" was another of the evening's highlights, buoyed by a serpentine bass-line by Reid Anderson. As King worked his kit with gentle brushstrokes and rhythmic clicks, Lewis carried the Pink Floyd classic with sighing resignation and pregnant pauses, only to have the entire song woozily crumble around her as Iverson's fluttering piano sounded as if it were circling a drain through the final verse.

U2's "New Year's Day" also received a spirited renovation as Lewis, a diminutive presence in librarian glasses and a vintage shirt, conjured up the simmering bravado of a young Bono. Reworked to a twitchy, head-bobbing shuffle, the band broke the song down to dissonant chaos between the verses that meshed with the song's inner despair, only to find Lewis returning to soar over the top of the storm and lift the standing room-only crowd right along with her. (A clip of the act covering "New Year's Day" from a concert last year is below.)

Was it pure jazz? Was it something that would resonate with fans of the originals? The Bad Plus doesn't seem too terribly worried about the answers, and odds are, it's not keeping the band up at night.

-- Chris Barton

Photo: The Bad Plus, Reid Anderson, left, Wendy Lewis, Ethan Iverson and Dave King. Credit: Michael Dvorak