All words + photos: Kara Capelli
Spirit Animal: described as back breaking rock and shit-kicking funk. Part of me feels like I did, in fact, get the crap beat out of me by Spirit Animal at their show at Red Palace Sunday night. I spent most of the show somewhere between confusion, awe and exhilaration. They weren’t exactly volatile, but they were all over the place, with musical stylings that range from funk, to punk, to psychedelic, to something way in between, overlaid with quickly shifting sing/shout/rap vocals.
They initially jumped on stage with the slow, funky jam Ants! off of their 2010 debut Cost of Living. But that was just a warm-up, moving next to the less smooth, but still-funk-infused, bass-driven punk track Crocodile Skins, which they recently released. (Consider yourself warned: Do not watch this video if you prefer to not be puked on by a youtube clip, or in general, if you have a weak stomach. Otherwise it’s a colorful, creative, if not totally weird, visual rendition of whatever the hell the song is trying to convey.) Each subsequent song was more intense and rebellious, creating an ever-energetic and intense crescendo of a show, ending someplace belligerent and aggressive.
Fortunately, all the head-banging, sweat, and jumping around was tempered by their creative, eclectic side that permeates all their songs. It was also tempered by plenty of Chubby Checker-esque dance moves and other forms of body and facial expression from lead singer Steve Cooper. Not a lyric was sung or shouted without a dramatic facial expression, body movement, or dance move: jazz hands, hip thrusts, sashays, pointing, clutching, hands in the air, hands outstretched toward the audience, jumping, squatting, even a fake stab in the gut during Moanin’ and Groanin’. And it seemed like bassist Paul Michel spent as much time horizontal as he did vertical, displaying gravity-defying, matrix style slow motion bends with every climatic note.
Have you ever turned on music in the presence of a four-year-old and he or she just starts dancing? It’s usually some flavor of hip movement and hand waving with a look of either intense concentration or pleasure; the kind of dancing that makes you wonder how age forced you to be incapable of such happy oblivious abandon – when you’re sober, that is. Steve Cooper is that kid. When there’s music on, he couldn’t stop moving if he wanted to. It kept the energy in the room high, and for all their angry intensity, the mood was light and amusing.
For Spirit Animal, contradictions and irreconcilable extremes abound. Angry vs. amusing. Soulful vs. insane. Smooth funk vs. coarse garage rock. Even their look contradicts their stage presence. If you saw these four walking down the street, you’d take one look at their flannel shirts and you’d probably think they are Bon Iver-listening, intellectual hipster graduates of an expensive liberal arts college…not defiant punk rockers. I don’t know them personally, so the former description may or may not be the truth. I do know they take shots together on stage before the show, and at least one of them (Cooper) favors tequila over hair gel as a means of keeping annoying stray hairs out of his face (so he says).
The tension between extremes is not a hindrance for them. It’s more like their signature. They are talented, well-rehearsed, serious musicians. I’m sure their sound is continually evolving and developing, but the constant dichotomy between so many different elements creates an almost subconscious awareness and intrigue in the audience. So I say go ahead and totally own your multiple personality disorder. As long as you keep putting on shows like this, I’ll not complain. God knows music can always use some creativity and ingenuity.
And we had all kinds of fun throughout this show. Because the band never stopped dancing, the crowd, albeit small, kept moving too. And most of the songs have catchy hooks that make it easy for even the uninitiated to grab onto. Like the song Shit Gun Kill: if you drink all the time / that shit gun kill you / if you think all the time / that shit gun kill you / you might not mind / but that shit gun kill you / it’s a matter of time / somethin’ gun kill you / so you might as well do it all..”
Also, guitarist Cal Stamp was fantastic, but unfortunately, probably engaged in the least theatrics, so he often fell into the background. But he was duly showcased with more than a few very sexy, very awesome solos.
Flying Cars preceded Spirit Animal. Made up of two guys formerly of Asa Rasom, this guitar-percussion duo embodied many of the same stylings as Spirit Animal, but ended up being a less intense reprieve between first opener Vamos and the main act. Though still upbeat, their music is slightly softer, less complicated and more sentimental, all which is no surprise. Unless you’re the Black Keys or Matt and Kim (or, of that duo, maybe just Kim) two usually can’t equal the energy of four. There’s an obvious camaraderie between these two, a duo on the path to musical self-discovery. The goal is to make a fuller band at some point, but they told me that for now they’re just enjoying the ease and freedom of being two. They just put out their debut album Cause of Motion, from which I recommend the song Virginia.
On the other hand, first opener Vamos seems to have a pretty solid idea of where they stand musically. On stage they move like a wave, pulsing back and forth, dancing intensely in their own corner, all the while in sync as a group. They hit all those visceral senses that garage rock should, the ones that fall somewhere between I want to dance and scream my heart out then punch someone in the face.
They’re a little over a year old and in most ways they are your basic garage rock hodge-podge, cobbled together via party/drugs in Chicago, made up of guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, singing songs about being a bad boyfriend, and There’s No Stopping Me, and such. But they have two advantages over other average long-haired, head banging, my-influences-are-The Stooges-The Misfits-and-Nirvana bands:
1. One of the four members is an extremely talented, high energy, female presence on stage, not occupying a front and center role, but not quite in the background either, providing backup vocals, synth, and sporadic percussion. The female energy eliminates the possibility of a mundane, rock sausage fest, and brings a powerful dynamic to the stage that allows the band to not only be more diverse but also embody and convey a more dynamic liveliness.
2. They don’t obfuscate lack of vocal talent with loudness. On the contrary, they have plenty of vocal talent, and the most impressive thing about this band was their ability to harmonize their gritty and brash exclamations. They cite vague Motown references as their influence for all this harmonizing. (I didn’t press further in our conversation for specifics).
Plus they waste absolutely no time getting to the intense head-banging stage of any song, and stay at that level until each last chord. My overall assessment? They were great. It’s a shame there were only about five people at the show at that point to see them.
The crowd didn’t grow to anything significant throughout the whole evening, even for Spirit Animal. Given the small crowd, there probably weren’t many first time listeners in the audience, especially since Sunday shows require real fan conviction. But if there were, I can’t imagine they walked away anything but new fans. Usually I spend a decent part of my Sunday night watching Community and lamenting the fun I had over the past two days, feeling anxious over the inevitable moment when I wake up and realize it’s not the weekend anymore. Kudos and thanks to high energy, borderline crazy bands, because this show was the perfect antidote.