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October 22, 2014

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Uber Time: Away from Blue Man, members of Uberschall find time to play

By his own admission, Jordan Cohen didn't get much accomplished Monday.

"I took it easy all day and slept," the 34-year-old Las Vegan said. "I was pretty tired."

Little wonder. Cohen began playing his drums at 7 p.m. Sunday and didn't stop until around 3 a.m.

His marathon session began at Luxor, where Cohen a member of the Blue Man Group production company performed from a loft high above the stage.

After stripping off his glow-in-the-dark costume, Cohen drove to the MGM Grand's Studio 54, where he kicked off a midnight show with local improvisational band Uberschall.

A strenuous schedule, to be sure, but hardly unusual for the men of Uberschall.

All seven of the group's core members are, or have been, in the Blue Man Group's Las Vegas cast, meaning all have served double, or even triple, duty in a single night.

Founded in 2000, the same year the Blue Man show opened at Luxor, Uberschall began as a creative outlet for several of the company's musicians.

"I knew I had to do something outside (Blue Man) to create a balance artistically," Elvis Lederer, one of Uberschall's founders, said.

"And Blue Man lets us do it because if you do other stuff outside, it brings a fresh perspective back to the show, and it keeps the show fresh for us."

Over the years, Uberschall's stature has grown markedly. Although the band's free-form music remains largely an underground phenomenon, Southern Nevadans in the know recognize it as one of the most original concepts in town.

Last year Uberschall raised its profile considerably with the advent of "Open Forum" nights, monthly events at Studio 54 in MGM Grand that bring together the band, DJs and dancers and acrobats from a variety of Strip productions in a live setting. Admission is free for locals.

Uberschall also continues its long-standing tradition at Double Down Saloon (4640 Paradise Road), performing free midnight shows at the club on the last Sunday of each month.

Supersonic start

Lederer worked in the Blue Man Group band in Boston, Chicago and New York before relocating to Las Vegas five years ago.

Not long after arriving in town, the German-born guitarist booked a gig for his side project at now-defunct Cafe Espresso Roma. Lederer had one small problem, however.

"I had the gig before I had the band," he recalled.

So Lederer recruited fellow Blue Man band members, and named the resulting group after the German word for "supersonic."

Uberschall bassist Aki Ishihara, another founding member, says he was immediately drawn to Lederer's concept.

"I have so much energy. I have to channel it in different directions," said Ishihara, who, like Lederer, plays guitar, zither and Chapman stick (another string instrument) for Blue Man Group.

"Blue Man is my primary gig, and I like being in the company. But with Uberschall, everything is improvised, so it's a totally different outlet for me to have fun."

Along with Lederer, Ishihara and Cohen, Uberschall's core members are drummers/percussionists Jeff Tortora, Jeffrey Brown and Tim Alexander and guitarist Mike Burns.

Tortora and Burns are both in the Blue Man band.

Brown, who once played the Blue Man role at the Luxor show, lives in Los Angeles, where he is pursuing a career in acting. He drives in as often as possible for Uberschall's performances.

And Alexander? Well, when he's not driving into town with Brown from his Los Angeles home, the former Blue Man band member plays with his "other band," the recently reunited Primus.

So what keeps the California duo coming back for free-to-the-public Uberschall performances?

In a word, freedom.

"I've played with Les Claypool and his Frog Brigade and with Primus and there was a lot of improv with those bands, but with Uberschall there's no structure," Alexander said. "I've never seen it totally wide open like this."

When Alexander or Brown are unavailable, Uberschall either strips down from four to three drummers, or brings in one of its satellite members.

Those frequent contributors include Matthew Kriemelman, another Blue Man musician, and Todd Waetzig, a drum trainer for the Blue Man company.

One song

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Uberschall's approach is that the group begins each show with no idea what it might play. Not just without a set list. Without songs.

Or maybe it's one giant song.

"The joke is that we have one song, and in a sense, yeah, we do," Cohen said with a chuckle.

Uberschall's sets don't even generally start with all seven musicians perched at their instruments. When the mood strikes, one begins playing, signaling to the others that the time has come for Uberschall to begin.

"Sometimes a drummer will start. Sometimes I'll start. Sometimes (Lederer) will start," Ishihara said. "You figure out what the tempo is, what key it's in, and you go from there."

Although the term "group improvisation" might conjure images of jam bands such as Phish or the Grateful Dead, Uberschall takes a much different tack.

"We're not a jam band in the sense that somebody solos forever," Lederer said. "It's more like the idea of African drumming, that through repetition you create an intensity. And like a DJ, you move from one idea to another."

Tortora explained that depending on the night, the venue, or the crowd, the direction Uberschall might head can vary greatly.

"We could do a very heavy, aggressive set, or we could do a very surreal, Pink Floyd-type set or we could do a tribal, techno-type set," Tortora said. "We just try to listen to each other and start a vibe, create a mood."

The word "listen" comes up often in conversations with Uberschall members, who are unified in their belief that the band sounds best when the musicians pay close attention to one another onstage.

"On a good night, everyone is pretty responsive to each other and it's seamless," Cohen said. "We have a musical conversation."

Alexander agreed. "It's about listening, listening to everyone. Sometimes a guitar player might start changing something, and if you don't listen, you can get left behind."

Added Brown: "With four drummers, if I'm not feeling it, I just stop and listen."

Ishihara described the concept as "challenging."

"It constantly challenges my brain," he said. "At every moment, I'm thinking, 'What can I do? What can I play?' Most of the time I really try to lock in with the drummers and make it groovy, something you can dance to. That's when I'm most happy, when people are bobbing their heads."

Uber future

Though Uberschall sells live CDs from past performances at its shows, the band has no plans to record in the studio.

And although the group has traveled for occasional out-of-state gigs -- such as a Sundance Film Festival rave party in 2003 -- the members' Blue Man Group responsibilities prevent full-scale touring.

So where does Uberschall go from here?

Several members mentioned an interest in film soundtracks, for which the band's percussive "wall of sound" approach would seem ideally suited.

Mostly, however, Uberschall's musicians sounded content with the group's current role, that of local late-night sensation.

After all, word of mouth has gotten Uberschall this far. Why mess with success?

"I've never seen a band go so far by doing so little," Brown said. "All we do is show up for the gigs, and that's one of the reasons it's so fun. There's no pressure. It's just a nice release for us."

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