A friend of mine emailed this week to say that the drummer for prog-druids Mars Volta is the best sticksman he's ever seen in concert -- even better than Porcupine Tree's Gavin Harrison. (Rock photographer Ross Halfin, who doesn't offer praise cavalierly, is similarly impressed and wrote in his blog, "The new drummer, Thomas, is amazing, as Omar said, he comes from drummer's heaven. Thomas played the most insuperable drum fills with just one hand.")
I've not seen Mars Volta live in concert, so I can't compare notes. But it got me wondering about the best drummer I've ever seen live. And I have to say it's Andy Williams of Doves. (Ok, just kidding -- their percussion may be rather uninventive, but they're still an awesome group.) But seriously, I've been super impressed by Carl Palmer, Stewart Copeland, Zak Starkey (The Who), Sterling Campbell (David Bowie), and Vinnie Colaiuta (but he was just backing Sting so I didn't get to see him play anything as awesome as this).
I never saw John Bonham live, so, if I had to narrow it down to the very best three, it would be:
3.) Wunderkind Keith Carlock of Steely Dan, voted #2 "Best All-Around Drummer" in Modern Drummer's Readers Poll in 2006, and #3 in 2007. Jeepers, talk about a great combination of sheer facility and groove. (Follow this link and watch the video titled "drum clinic solo" at the bottom right-hand corner. The whole thing is great, but the stuff he does after the 4:30 mark will make any drummer throw their sticks into the wood pile next to the fireplace. And check out the tattoo patterns Carlock plays after the 10 minute mark.)
2.) Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree. He never takes a drum solo (though check out his incredible fills at the end of "Hatesong" on the PT live DVD) but he has phenomenal technique and complexity. (Harrison is a pioneer of "rhythmic illusions," a process of "about making small changes to a conventional pattern in order to persuade the listener that the tempo, and or time signature has momentarily changed.") He's heavy! Just watch. That bass-drum work is quite something. No wonder he's been tapped as the second drummer in the current King Crimson lineup.
1) Neil Peart. No question. Gavin Harrison may be more technically adept (though, at their level, it's a bit like comparing Steve Vai and Joe Satriani), but Peart wins out because he is such a musical drummer. And isn't that what it's all about? Go to any Rush gig (or watch a concert DVD) and you'll see hundreds and hundreds of men playing air drums, something you'll never see to that degree at any other concert. Simply, Peart's beats and fills are entirely integral to the music and they each add something to the songs rather than being superfluous or to show off. And when Peart does show off during his traditional drum solo, which is a percussion composition, it's hard not to feel gobsmacked once he starts playing ultra-fast, cross-handed patterns with his eyes closed.