Moon Hooch’s Musical Battle Royale at EIJF

by Monika Viktorova

What does the Pokémon Say? was probably far from the minds of the bespectacled 20-something hipsters and decidedly older jazz aficionados milling about the Starlite room, waiting for the evening show to kick off around 8 pm. With Squirtle on trombone and Charizard on guitar, opening act Klusterfunk answered the unasked question anyway, kicking the night off with a bizarre melee possible only when musician-performers truly commit to the bit. The band, who must’ve been sweltering in their costumes since second trombonist Snorlax wriggled out of the top half of his jumpsuit two songs in, radiated a kind of manic energy normally reserved for fans who line up outside a venue the night before the performance just to make sure they’re front row.  

Klusterfunk @ EIJF; Courtesy of Monika Viktorova

A Squirtle and Snorlax trombone battle halfway through one of their songs roared out into the crowd as the band pressed on in a sound best described as halfway between punk rock and an unruly orchestra. With plenty of energy and a surprisingly cohesive stage presence for a 10 piece ensemble, Klusterfunk ran a tight ship, albeit a ship of pirates. Jokes aside, Klusterfunk did their job as openers superbly, setting the crowd on edge in a kind of buzzy anticipation for main act, Moon Hooch. So if you ever wondered what your local high school jazz band would sound like if they all got into punk, check them out on your music platform of choice. They definitely have enough cowbell. A whole solo of it, in fact.

Moon Hooch; Courtesy of Kenneth Kearney/Edmonton International Jazz Festival

Moon Hooch came on ready for a musical battle, backlit in halogenic blue and orange, horn players Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen  facing off against each other, holding their saxophones like they’re weapons of war. I’ve never seen someone rock out as hard on a sax as Wilbur, complete with ninja kicks (while strapped to a saxophone!!!) and 60s Rock God head tossing. McGowen, on his part, kept the audience focused on the highs and low of the music, carefully titrating our energy to build up with every lull and crash like a wave with every epic drop. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that his ability to dance onstage while holding various wind instruments, sometimes complete with bizarre prop extensions like an oversized traffic cone, is mesmerizing. Drummer James Muschler was heard rather than seen, less the face of the operation than the percussion muscle behind it.

The show was an education with what can be done with classical jazz instruments, often seen as stuffy, to rework their sound into something primal and raw. If  you have a teen in your life that’s dreading band or music practice, show them a video of the band rocking out in an NPR Tiny Desk concert to expand their horizons on just how fungibly cool jazz music and its instruments can be. Wilbur can make his sax scream: a guttural, primal cry to punctuate a would-be love song, turning up the intensity concomitantly to increasing pitch, a sound critics have appropriately called “unhinged” and “irresistible”. Moon Hooch’s energy is a fever, rarely breaking outside of drops worthy of your favorite dubstep rockstar. On some songs, they add electronic effects to the sound from their instruments in real time, layering the crisp sizzle of tech modulation to push the sound’s energy even higher. Their music is a thunderstorm on a summer evening: comes on fast and strong with no warning, but the warm rain is pleasant and the lightning flashes across the sky violently romantic. I’ve only ever been to one other jazz show with this much wildfire energy, and that was in 2014 when Woodkid opened Montreal’s Jazz Fest. Moon Hooch have a decidedly different sound but their music would sit equally well as the background to a climactic heist scene in a movie.

Moon Hooch swings wildly between electronic, jazz, funk and electro swing, sometimes even within the same song, a sort of wild-eyed Badbadnotgood. Fittingly, the band has gone from a start on New York’s subway platforms to touring with fellow high energy category benders Beats Antique, They Might Be Giants, and Lotus. But they haven’t left the lessons from their early days behind: “What we discovered playing in the subway is that the more focus and the more energy you put into the music, and the more you listen to everything around you and integrate everything around you into your expression, the more the music becomes this captivating force for people”, says Wilbur. This lesson is obviously put to work in the band’s onstage strategy, as they play off the audience’s energy almost as much as off their each other’s. Throughout the show, the crowd didn’t stop jumping, moshing and screaming in response to the magnetic stage presence Wilbur and McGowen were throwing at them, and in turn getting back, a sizzling interplay of music projected with feeling and the adulation of a viscerally eager audience.

“Thank you for sharing this energy with us,” McGowen meditatively signs off at the close of their set, bowing to the audience in appreciation. Although their music is a battle cry, their approach is decidedly more zen, McGowen preaching the benefits of yoga and meditation and crediting the band’s practice of both as increasing their attunement to one another (watch McGowen’s TED talk on it here). Moon Hooch leaves us all exhausted but transcendent, the Starlite slowly emptying, it’s patrons in reverie.