Pretend that some uninformed clubber went to hear The New Deal‘s “progressive breakbeat house” music at the Blind Pig tomorrow night. She’d hear funky electronic music and assume that a DJ was hiding at the back of the venue. Then she’d move closer and see a pair of drum sticks rhythmically slicing through the air. Soon she’d realize that the guy she thought was operating the laptop is actually playing the keyboards, and right next to him is a real live bassist.
The New Deal — made up of keyboardist Jamie Shields, bassist Dan Kurtz and drummer Darren Shearer — began as a Canadian funk/acid-jazz group in the late ’90s, delving into electronica after they tired of playing the same old grooves. A recording of one of their first shows as The New Deal, This Is Live, remains their top-selling album to date.
If the idea of a live band playing breakbeat music sounds gimmicky, remember that these three heads are better than one: The New Deal collaborate in real time, collectively improvising new music as they go. “The three of us are constantly thinking about where the show is going,” Shearer said. “Very rarely are you thinking about what you’re playing right at the moment, it has much more to do with what you’re going to play next.”
That means that The New Deal will “jam” tomorrow night, but not in the conventional sense. For this group, improvisation is more than just picking a key and adding a danceable beat. Shields and Kurtz have created a system of hand signals in order to establish modes and keys, while Shearer uses his own hand gestures to sign different beats and rhythms. “It’s great because it becomes much less of a jam and more of a conscious effort to write music live,” Shearer said.
Listeners shouldn’t get the impression that everything The New Deal do onstage is made up on the spot: The band has released two studio albums to support their live creations. The title track on 2003’s Gone Gone Gone wraps tight instrumental hooks around a few minutes of improvisation, showing off a more melodic approach that some listeners may have missed. Even Shearer felt the change from behind his drum kit: “We took about a year off, and when we came back. I noticed that there’s a big difference in our sound and that everyone’s been noticing it, fans included.” They also enlisted vocalists for a couple of album tracks: Canadian songwriter Martina Sorbara (Kurtz’s spouse) and chick-rocker Feist (“She’s huge in Germany,” Shearer said).
Despite the tighter structures found on the album, the band’s first love is the stage. “You can’t get energy from the crowd when you’re in the studio, and that’s a huge part of our music,” Shearer explained. The Blind Pig should be just the right venue for The New Deal’s “no sampler, no sequencer” live electronic sound.