Saturday, November 17, 2012

be prepared: Shellac, 22oct2011, New Parish

No easy way to say this: Shellac were as potent a collision of tight and rocking as I've ever seen. Flawless stop-starts, underrated melodies, hammy yet satisfying showmanship (glossed by Noodles as "guy's got a taste for drama, no?") and an unparalleled ability to sell previously unheard songs. Every bit as good as the best NoMeansNo shows I've seen, which means: as good a show as I have ever seen.

Track list:

the watch song
steady as she goes
my black ass
he came in you*
a minute
squirrel song
bikes (on the wall)*
prayer to god
dog & pony show
the end of radio
o my brothers*
*new tune (name approximated/estimated)

Shellac: a synchronic appreciation

A feature of my life to date that truly deserves the appelation so sadly fucked is that most of the great lessons of/in life I've absorbed have come lyrics. A feature of my life to date that truly deserves the appelation seriously, dude, you're a pile of crap is that the bulk of those lyric lessons have been penned by lyricists like Gibby Haynes & Steve Albini. Normally I wouldn't kick--wisdom's where you find it--but Albini's first recorded lyrics included bons mot like

I've never hung a darkie, even a big one
I've never seen an Indian on a horse know...a little defensive.

now I got an engine
a big perverted engine
that runs on strength of will

do you get the same jokes as me?
do you get the jokes the same as me?

wrote him a letter
said I'll never come home
he never sent it
but he wrote it again and again
stacked up to the ceiling
then another stack
he burned them all winter
for heat

Shellac: a diachronic appreciation

Every Shellac release I own is a sun-like locus of memories, with planet-anecdotes orbiting. I frequently forget how much I like this band. I always forget to put them on, but whenever shuffle finds them, my moment improves. I won't miss them live, either.

Singles & At Action Park

A dipshit, I missed the initial singles at the time--a bigger dipshit, I now own multiple identical copies of them, in case of...needing...multiple...copies of the same 7"--and had to be turned on to At Action Park by some buddies. I bought my own copy with a copy of Big Black's Songs About Fucking the same day, put them on a cassette, and spent most of a year listening to little else. To this day, I remember the warehouses I'd walk by on the way to work, headphones on, boots thumping over the three miles no matter the weather, from cold forcing breath to congeal to ice in my beard to diagonal thunderstorms, to arid Denver heat, 1996 grinding away under the weight of my failures, herky-jerky stabs at adulthood and art, violent spasms toward attempts to be a good person, at long last, warehouses and train tracks trudging by morning after morning as I'd walk to work.

The singles--Uranus, with the impeccable "Doris" and "Wingwalker", and A Pictorial History of the Rude Gesture, with top-5-favorite-song-of-all-time "the rambler song" and whatever else is on it--I had a special relationship with from the beginning. Instantly I knew I didn't actually want to play them that often: they're special, and need to be reserved for those times a man truly needs a piece of art capable of frank absolution. One year, probably 1996 or 1997, I drunkenly called my friends who'd turned me on to Shellac and left a message along the lines of

Hey...guys...just...thinking about friends...and a cigar...a good cigar now and again...
For whatever reason, the best way I could think of to communicate my love for my friends was quoting Steve Albini lyrics from "the billiard player song". I think I've come a long way.

1000 Hurts

Somehow, in that largely pre-Internet age, everybody I knew knew the new Shellac was going to drop. I think I preordered it from Jackpot on Hawthorne in Portland, but fucked up and didn't get in on the first batch, so had to wait for the second. When 1000 Hurts arrived, everybody--everybody--was listening to it. You couldn't set foot on campus without hearing (somebody talk about) "prayer to god". I wore it out. Probably we all did.


Comparatively, Terraform was a massive disappointment. The two longest songs were static exercises, 12 minutes and 7 minutes of difficult-to-play and difficult-to-listen-to slow technicalisms that please no record owner. I told people often that, minus those two songs, it would have been a phenomenal EP, and I took immense pleasure from the frankly poppy put-down "copper", savage riff showcase and Albini standby diss track "Canada" and ventriloquism hatchet job "mouthpiece". At a time when my consumption of new music had essentially flatlined, this platter was a piss-poor lifeline into productive consumption; but I still listened to it a lot, and it still taught me who the amazing Cheley Bonestall is/was.

Excellent Italian Greyhound

Then...nothing. For years, nothing. They played a pair of memorable shows in Portland, including a couple new songs, and shot their mouths off about "yeah, the new album exists, and we'll release it when we feel like it." Eventually, they felt like it. As a product, Excellent Italian Greyhound skews 'way closer to Terraform than to At Action Park, but still includes a handful of my favorite Shellac songs, which means it still includes a handful of my favorite songs.

I put it on the jukebox at the bar I worked at, and took infinite comfort in those depressed years from stompers like "be prepared" and the second-best bass solo ever, in "boycott". At the shows, their long, slow, methodical versions of "the end of radio" taught me what they'd been up to with the disappointing numbers on Terraform: a platform for performativity, a framework for stringing an audience along and compelling maximal attention to minimal information, demanding total focus in case the band/song changes. It works beautifully live--"the end of radio" has happied me every time I've heard it played--and nearly reverses my opinion on the real estate it occupies on wax.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

be brave, Watt: Mike Watt & the Missingmen, New Parish 8nov2012

It's a promise of something. Nobody's gonna get hurt here, nobody's going to get hated. Everyone is going to dream their most intense dream and not be scared. Not try to push it all the fuck away. Ya know? Of making and creating.
--Mike Watt

A cold night, a concrete floor, I'm waiting for a Mike Watt show. Could be pretty much any time from 1991 on. My first such show was in Boulder, Colorado, at a place called, I think, Ground Zero. My mom drove me up from Aurora, went and drank coffee until I was done moshing to fIREHOSE. I saw "this ain't no picnic" on Teletunes, and Minutemen records ended up represented in the first three or four CDs and 45s I bought. (Second 45, after 99 Luftballoons, I think, was Paranoid Time.) Just like at that first show, I'm one of the younger dudes in the room, though one of the opening bands, Disappearing People, has a young, enthusiastic posse along for the ride.

A few years after that first (amazing) gig, at the Gothic Theatre in Denver, my head was coming down as another was coming up, and I still have a chipped front tooth from the collision. I came up from the floor okay, though, with my bent-ass glasses and fucked-up mouth, and joined in as the whole room sang Brave Captain. Other shows: Portland shows where I got to annoy Watt when he was trying to talk to Richard Meltzer, California shows; a million records, a movie, even a solid handful of books (Spiels of a Minuteman, Double Nickles on the Dime, Mike Watt: On and Off Bass.

All those shows, all that stuff; it's safe to say that I'm a fan...

There is a part of me that feels frustrated at my show-going, though: when I look at bands coming through town, or at my show list, I sometimes feel a little resentful that I see the same bands over and over, as they and I age. It's like they expect me to keep showing up, and to pay $30 when I once paid $12: it's like I'm a hostage to my own youth.1

But that's the kind of thinking that only happens when I'm standing around before the show, or when I'm at a desk, looking at show listings. Once the sound starts, I'm where I want/need to be, and I know that someday there just won't be any Mike Watt shows to go to—and I'll be doubledamned if I end up having to look back and admit that I skipped some because I was too old, or too tired, or because I had to work the next day, or because I decided I had something better to spend a couple bucks on.

If the money isn't a challenge, something that is is Watt's entirely admirable conviction that "punk is whatever we made it to be": I'm only now really figuring out his third solo album, The Secondman's Middle Stand, and that came out a full eight years ago. He's been touring the new one, "hyphenated-man" for a couple years now, and only at this New Parish show do I really start to feel it. (The Bottom of the Hill show we caught last year suffered from that venue's abysmal sound2 and tendency to overfill the space with colossal dickheads.) The new one is light on tunes where the whole band is playing one riff—to use a possible Watt-ism, there's not too many songs where all the rowers are pulling in the same direction. Live, that can be a tough proposition, because listening to complex interplay like that can easily devolve into a sense that there's three guys not really listening to one another... As Watt himself says before the show:

"We're about to do a pretty fucked-up thing here. We're gonna play one long song in 30 parts for 45 minutes."
While Watt never gives anything but his very best effort, his aesthetic has gone some weird places over the past decade or so, and there are definite bars to entry.

There's definite rewards, too, though. On this night, the band is in incredible form. The sound is balanced perfectly—at least for Noodles and me it is, standing about two feet away from Tom Watson, playing his fingers off all night. For the first time, I hear and feel how the bass and guitar lines are complementing one another song to song. For the first time, the songs have a real groove: everybody there can feel it, and everybody's dancing their asses off.3 For the first time, I pick up on the playful genre moves, from big-rock to country to singalong-shanty to Minutemeny-tribute to blues-rock and beyond. Watt's in excellent voice, too: for a lot of years, I've kind of wished he'd abdicate the singing role, but on this night, it's impossible to imagine anybody inhabiting these songs but him and his bull-roar.

The crowd is pretty good, too, even if I did get pissy with a couple old dudes over issues of personal space and how I'm not really about talking to strangers in public because I'm a prick. Everybody's dancing, and, more impressively, everybody's along for the ride as Watt pushes hard on his intense desire to explore a huge dynamic range. Which is to say: everybody shuts the fuck up and listens during the quiet bits, which are quieter than any other set I've ever seen. (The Bottom of the Hill show was particularly noxious in this regard: listening to a couple drunk bros conversate through "mouse-headed-man" made me want to walk out on the show.) There's a reward for this, too, because the recitation in "pinned-to-the-table-man" was as riveting and—fuckin' right—inspirational as anything I've seen at a show:

loss and liberation
forever the connection
forever the question
be brave, watt
stop never reflectin'
the lesson ain't ever less than
the lesson never lessens

The piece concluded, the band took a quick break, while the audience clapped for a return. Rarely, I suspect, were so many people ever given so much frank joy by complicated jazzy rock in a Bosch-inspired "all middle parts" rock opera performed by a power trio with an average age in the middle 40s. It's a tribute to the excellence of the music and the passion of the performance: Tom Watson and Raul Morales played with absolute conviction and immense skill. (I read once that late live shows of The Who's Tommy were better than the record, because the band had had time to figure out how best to play and present the parts: I wonder if something similar happened here.)

How much skill and conviction was brought that night? Well, they covered Jimi Hendrix' Machine Gun in the encore, and they pulled it the fuck off.

A few more covers, including a lights-out version of "one reporter's opinion" and it was a wrap. Raul sold me a kick-ass button and a 7" I need to fix my turntable to play. Watt sold me a Hand to Man Band CD and a shirt and said he needed to play Oakland more often, after I told him it meant a lot to me that he played Oakland on a work night.

A great show, a great experience, and a great lesson. We put in the work listening to some singular music, we put ourselves in a position to have a rad experience coming out on a work night, and we got rewarded bigime for both. Thanks for playing, guys: it was wonderful.

--Fat, long-time listener and gig-goer

1 I should note here that Watt is not now nor has he ever been one of these offenders. Mostly I'm talking about one particular Mountain Goats show at the Fillmore, I think. In general, anybody I want to see is likely to want to charge a pretty reasonable price.

2 It's always incredibly trebly there. I remember an Obits/Night Marchers show where Greg's guitar sounded like burning tinfoil.

3 Watt even noticed the dancing, though he had to ignore it to pull off playing the piece.