I went to the Black Mountain/Bon Iver show on Tuesday hoping that a band I really liked would draw enough of a crowd to get gas money to go to their next gig. Instead when I walked in there was a wall of people all the way to the door in the Rock and Roll Hotel’s pretty sizable room. I’ve never seen the place as packed, seriously. Now maybe I’m just not aware of the wild popularity of either one of these acts, but this particular crowd didn’t seem to have heard of either one of the bands. Today I did a little investigation and found out that there was a sort of perfect storm of promotion before this show: Interview in the Post Express, simulcast on NPR, lead story on Pitchfork (which Svetlana claims is mainly read by fraternity dudes looking to score a token indie chick) all at the center of a blog-a-cane of hipsters gushing about both groups. I’m like, so out of it.
Things like this make me very conflicted. As I pushed my way politely but forcefully to the front [method: move quickly with a big apologetic smile on your face and repeat “Sorry, Sorry” as you point forward as if there is a big emergency that you have to deal with in the front of the audience and if someone gives you a dirty look punch them in the dick so the others will know you are loco] I was happy that bands of cool people were getting paid lots of cash money to make good music. But as I stood up against the wall listening to a loud group of complete douchebags sitting on the bar yammer over Bon Iver’s quiet contemplative music even though they knew it was being recorded, I wondered if it was worth it. How do I know they knew it was being broadcast? Because at every quiet interval they shouted out the funniest things they could think of which consisted of “HIV-NEGA-TIVE” and Borat quotes. Soon a group of Northern Virginia biddies, cloaked in cheap perfume and sequined off-the-rack Express tops flocked over to their mating calls of “Anyone got any pot?” and suddenly it was like Georgetown in my left ear. Banging your head against the wall doesn’t help in this situation by the way.
It wouldn’t have been as bad if the band had been standing up. I appreciate Bon Iver’s intention with the sitting—they’re not making dance music and it must help set the vibe in better environments—but the R&R stage is pretty small anyway. Whether visible or not, it’s all about lead singer Justin Vernon, whose voice gets compared to a lot of soul singers’ falsettos, and despite myself and the Abercrombie-and-Bitch convention I was pretty impressed. He asked the crowd to sing along on one tune, which worked out well because that made it even harder to hear the buzz of retarded conversations from the back of the room (“Man this neighborhood is dangerous, did you come here all by yourself? This is a big step for you, you’re branching out all over the place.” Diediediediedie.) It also allowed him to improvise around our chorus as the band slowly built from a sleepy folk song into a Built to Spill-ish noisy guitar solo.
The other person onstage whose name I missed and who appeared to be around 18 (sorry for the indistinctness but I could neither see nor hear the proceedings that well) was playing a baritone guitar (I caught that much) which allowed him to rumble out bassy notes most of the time but also stomp on a fuzz box and open up the weirdness along with Justin. Those were my favorite moments, when they let a song go from polite to wild, pretty much like Neil Young or his 90s indie progeny do but with soul chord changes rather than country. It probably sounded awesome on the radio but live it would have been more interesting if I could sit down and ushers made the dickheads shut up about their favorite David Gray song.
Black Mountain I had no trouble hearing. They were loud as fucking bombs. I started out standing right next to the speaker, and as soon as they ambled onstage and Amber Webber opened up her throat like Stevie Nicks stuck on Yoko-warble high-gear my eardrums nearly flew out my goddamn head into someone’s hair. In other words, pretty typical Rock and Roll Hotel mixing board issues. At least the air-raid feedback only happened between songs! But enough negative shit, too loud or not these guys were amazing.
I was worried that some of their krautrock-boogie metal explorations would be boring or wankish live but even at their most outerspace Tangerine Dream keyboard-doodly they kept the beats head-bang or (heroin nod) steady. The version of older song “Don’t Run Our Hearts Around” was especially hypnotic with Webber (who was wearing one of the poofy potatosack dresses I associate with chic-frumpy Brooklyn but still looked gorgeous) and Stephen McBean harmonizing evilly over well placed Hawkwindy keyboard screeches neither of which distracted from the fundamental funkiness of the rhythm. Moogs are pretty hard to play on the fly and Jeremy Schmidt managed to pull off changing timbres and frequencies and such right in the middle of the songs with ease, without being too obtrusive on the organic stoner vibes. I’ve been on a Can binge recently, and Black Mountain has always reminded me of those German funkmeisters, though on some of their new stuff they’ve blended in the more glam-rock uptempo songwriting that McBean usually saves for my other favorite Canadian band the Pink Mountaintops. They manage to stay grounded by relying on big fat beats with lots of sick Bonzo tom rolls and the blend of Webber’s vibrato with McBeans distinctive whine, a singularity which is a huge plus when you’re trying to merge as many styles as they do.
The noise must have been too much for a lot of the curious Express readers (or they might have been afraid they’d close the border with the suburbs at midnight) since it was a lot less crowded when they came back for an encore. There was still a confused looking bunch of chicks trying to get the keyboard player to pose with them for a picture while he was about to play, (“Dude, why won’t he pay attention to me…Hello? Helloooo?”) but everyone who stayed was at least totally into it and I lost any animosity for the squares as they all put their hands together and clapped joyously to the pulsing, almost drumless freakout, and kept bouncing as the band meandered into prog-space, then almost crawled to a halt in a repetitive guitar/drum duet, and as soon as they burst back into the original riff and returned to earth everyone started jumping and clapping some more.
I’m no longer conflicted. Next Stop—Bonnaroo!