You can tell a lot about a band by the time and energy it takes them to set up their instruments. The more guitar pedals that emerge from the case, the higher the likelihood that you’re about to be treated to some grade-A self-indulgence. And when the keyboard player starts pulling out pennywhistles and woodblocks, it’s often a good idea to just head outside to have a smoke, or go down to Danny’s to get some fried chicken. Sometimes, though, a band really needs every baroque addition to the guitar/bass/drum trinity in order to create a truly unique sound.
Alternative Instrumentation Night at the Rock and Roll Hotel began with Tone the Guitar Ensemble, who I hear are no longer going by the last part of that. I only caught the final song in their set, but every time I see them I think: “Yep, that was Tone. Again.” I’ve never figured out why they need so many guitars to play single chords for a long time, but they have dedicated fans and they seem to have made new ones last night with a spirited performance.
As they broke down both of their drum sets, I chatted with the next band’s merch girl, who excitedly told me about their new movie: the Legend of God’s Gun. Apparently after years of making music that sounds like the soundtrack to a really weird Spaghetti Western, a movie producer saw Spindrift play in LA and helped them create an actual Spaghetti Western weird enough to contain their music. She said that they were touring on a mixture of songs from that soundtrack and new stuff. Onstage, Kirkpatrick Thomas (the singer dude), dressed in the black starry jacket of a wizard lounge singer, pulled a harmonium out its case and arranged a line of multicolored maracas in front of his mike stand, while the other nine members set up an entire elementary school music classes collection of shakers, triangles, and noisemakers. I knew for sure this was going to be either terrible or brilliant when one guy unsheathed a double-neck bass/guitar and brandished it proudly.
As soon as they hit the first rattling note I knew they were legit. Not many people have the cojones to mix sleazy Vegas twist garage with lush Enrico Morricone, but these fifteen year veterans made it seem easy. KP’s heavily reverbed growls add a cool Jon Spencer-ish rockabilly vibe to the psychedelic mix, and while it was hard to say which songs exactly are from the movie, I’m pretty sure that the one where the percussionist clangs on a railroad tie has to appear at the climax. Somehow with all those people playing all those notes it was still eminently danceable, and the crowd boogied cheerfully despite the feeling that a bandito with a sixgun could materialize at any minute and challenge us to a gun battle. After their set (and during another long period of carefully packing away vintage instruments, and unpacking the next band’s precious ebay purchases) I spoke to Jason, the drummer, about the tour. We were lucky apparently because sometimes the mix of elements doesn’t gel as smoothly as it did for us, and that they have to practice constantly to get the timing and mix down. Time well spent, clearly.
Next up, Black Angels. They key to understanding their music is the single drum set up alone on the side of the stage. Most bands don’t feel they need more tom-tom, but when these Austin kids get into a groove it feels like Christopher Walken as a Tarzan record-producer is egging them on to deeper jungle-rhythms.
I guess he’d also be calling for More Reverb, since every note coming out of them sounded like it was shimmering. Even the air seemed to be murky and wet as the standard 60’s psychedelia projector sent lava-lamp images spinning on the wall behind them. I was totally exhausted from a long weekend of sinfulness, so sometimes the pounding and the echoing feedback almost drubbed me into unconsciousness, but it was still a pleasant sort of stupor, and once when I feel asleep on my feet I dreamed I could understand what Alex Mass was singing about.
For some reason it was a protest song about monkey torture, but that’s neither here nor there, The Black Angels are living proof that waves of noise can be both tuneful and rocking, and that occasionally it takes a orchestra of machines to make a primitive sound.
(all photos: Pat Jarrett)