He has wondered whether he is a ball-hog or a tugboat. His first collaborator speculated that he is chalk, a dartboard, that his sex is disease, that he is a stop sign. But his current bandmates simply call him “Il Capitano Watt.”
Legendary bassist Mike Watt is not just a captain but a stylistic seafarer. Long inspired by the giants of other art forms (Dante, Bosch, Joyce) as well as those of his adopted métier (Coltrane, Who, Sonic Youth), Watt navigates from artistic port to artistic port. This son of a navy shipman draws heavily on maritime imagery in his work—he composed his first punk opera (1997’s Contemplating The Engine Room) around the theme of naval life. He refers to the tour van as the boat in which the black gang sails. An anchor pendant dangles from his neck, and an anchor inlay adorns his bass fretboard.
But his present project takes the metaphor 20,000 leagues deeper into the sea.
Il Sogno Del Marinaio (Italian for “the sailor’s dream”) matches Watt with guitarist Stefano Pilia and drummer Andrea Belfi in a combo whose jazzy post-rock charts a fascinating course through both calm and troubled waters. The trio dips into the sonic palette of Watt’s many bands, past and present. One hears the jangly indie punk of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE along with the mathy garage abstractions of the Missingmen.
Tonight, the group performed its Canto Secondo album in its entirety (although not sequentially). The difference between the record and this live performance is analogous to that between gazing up at Géricault’s Le Radeau de la Méduse painting and actually being on a flimsy raft tossed on the waves. The restraint of the studio has been tossed overboard.
The angular stutter rhythms of “Il Sogno del Fienile” evoke the choppiness of a whitewater outing. The chill jazz of “Skinny Cat” feels like a pleasant afternoon of gentle sailing. The breathtaking “Us In Their Land” could be a powerboat racing to shore or a pirate ship capsizing in an angry storm. At times, the listener floats peaceably on the waves and at times is thrown violently against a bulkhead.
At the close of the set, Watt yells to the crowd, “Start your own band!” This tireless collaborator and icon of the DIY ethic encourages one and all to contribute to the millennia-old human conversation that is art.
To his shipmates, Watt is indeed the captain. But to the rest of us, he’s an everyman genius.