The musical bond between Kieran Hebden (alias Four Tet) and the late Steve Reid may have seemed like an unlikely one to some, but their telekinetic synergy resulted in one of the most exciting working relationships of the new millennium. Through a series of one-take sessions with no overdubs in sight, their conversations between electricity and the drums moved mountains. Live At The South Bank is an essential document that not only captures Hebden and Reid at the peak of their improvisational abilities, but suggests that the best was yet to come. By inviting saxophonist Mats Gustafsson to join the exchange, a new collaborative layer was revealed by sharing this experience with other musicians.
Kieran and Steve lay the foundation on the first disc with an extended take on “Morning Prayer,” turning the selection into an epic ritual that builds with the intensity of an avalanche. As Hebden moves between ambient and anarchic textures, Reid grabs hold of the rhythm and transforms it into a flurry of cymbals and snares. Gustafsson resists the urge to play until the next piece, but immediately makes his presence felt. The bubbling bass of “Lyman Place” is blown back by Mats, delivering a powerful solo of screeches and visceral screams. At one point, his horn fights his way through the sounds of a plane about to take flight before settling into a low-end loop, unable to deny the groove any longer. He takes the lead on “People Be Happy,” belting out some deep bass notes that slowly become possessed shrieks. Despite the outburst, this piece turns out to be one of the most animated on the album as Hebden punches in cartoonish clunks and bounces, causing Reid to add thunderous thumps and cymbal crashes in approval every time those effects come around.
As the second disc starts with “Untitled,” it becomes evident that the locked groove is just as much an integral part of the process as being open to spontaneous jams. Reid’s steady rhythm allows Gustafsson to get soulful, effortlessly moving from heavenly cries to guttural catharsis within a matter of minutes. The groove is subdued on “25th Street” with Hebden’s low-key funk pulses and plucks supplying a reference point. Two-thirds of the trio step back midway through for Reid to get free, straying occasionally from the beat to expand his territory on additional percussion, but always looking towards the locked groove as a homing device. The tension builds on “The Sun Never Sets” to the point that this unit becomes pure fire, consuming everything in its path. As the wall of noise crumbles and Gustafsson’s saxophone wails beyond the stage confines, Hebden slowly introduces familiar textures. The album begins just as it ends: we’re back at “Morning Prayer.”
In light of Steve Reid’s death, we can only imagine the possibilities and potential players that he and Kieran Hebden could have worked with after this performance. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. Live At The South Bank is a fitting tribute to Reid as well as the daring collaborative efforts that he took part in right up to his departure. On one night in June of 2009, he along with Hebden and Mats Gustafsson completely redefined what it means to be a power trio.