The opening act, Bloomington's Snaarj, took the stage while it was still light outside (I'd never realized the Bishop had windows before) and played a half-hour set of rock- and funk-inflected jazz instrumentals, fronted by a pair of excellent young saxophonists and backed up by a rhythm section of electric bass and drums. This is the sort of group that owes its existence to IU's music school, where all four members are currently enrolled. You don't find college kids with chops like theirs gigging on weeknights in just any college town. Thanks to the early start, I didn't catch the entire set, but what I heard was encouraging, and the three or four dozen people in attendance seemed to agree.
The headliner was Chicago's Algernon, a cerebral quintet whose music calls to mind post-rockers (and fellow Chicagoans) Tortoise as well as the jazzy '70s prog-rock of the Soft Machine and Frank Zappa, among others. Granted, much of this resemblance is superficial: like Tortoise, and like several of Zappa's groups, Algernon plays quirky, not-quite-rock instrumentals that prominently feature the vibraphone - a sound you don't hear every day. The group is actually led by guitarist Dave Miller, although it's his intricate compositions that take center stage rather than his guitar playing (he didn't play a solo all night). Miller is clearly not averse to a catchy melody - check out "Timekiller," which can be heard on the band's MySpace page as well as on their recent Cuneiform Records release Ghost Surveillance - but these melodies tend to come cloaked in odd-metered rhythms and complex, winding song structures.
The group, whose full lineup includes a second guitarist along with a standard bass-and-drums rhythm section, emphasizes precision and restraint over raw energy in its performances. Perhaps for this reason, their occasional forays into louder, more aggressive territory weren't completely convincing. Otherwise, they pulled off some tricky material, veering from snaking unison sections to moments of film-noir ambience and semi-improvised shoegaze blur, and made it sound easy.