In the past couple weeks I have been lucky enough to see three fantastic live shows — and no, I didn’t make it to NEARfest. A little while ago I saw Sleepytime Gorilla Museum at the Black Cat here in DC. I’ve been told many times that this band is one hell of an experience live, so my expectations were kind of through the roof. Maybe because of that, I ended up a little disappointed, but it was still a great show. Probably based on the kind of younger, punkish audience that the Black Cat brings, SGM played mostly their loud and heavy stuff - the first half of Of Natural History, namely, plus “1997″ from the debut. The performance was fantastic and impassioned, but the sound was awful — maybe because I was standing too close to the stage. I could hardly make out anything aside from the percussion and occasional violin; vocals and guitar especially were way too low. But anyway. The performance-art aspect of the show was neat, and I’ve never enjoyed watch a band set up so much, thanks to all of SGM’s bizarre homemade instruments.
Also, there was one opening band of note, because they were so bad. I forget what they were called, but when they got on stage my interest was piqued thanks to their lineup of five guitarists and a bassist lined up in a semicircle around two drummers. But then they started playing, and damned if they didn’t sound like a pedestrian power trio. Why have five guitarists if they’re all going to play the exact same (boring) riff?
Show number two was a week later, in Pittsburgh’s Garfield Artworks: zany tech-metal band Behold… the Arctopus with new Tzadik signing Time of Orchids. (And a few other bands that I didn’t quite care for.) Behold I went to see on the recommendation of Steve F.; they played an amazingly impressive brand of super-fast complex instrumental metal. Guitarist, drummer, and Warr guitarist, the last of which was clearly the focal point of the band. Pretty incredible talent all around, but it was all a bit too much for me. The way I see it there are two ways to look at a band like this. One: you think Dream Theater is talented? Wait ’til you hear these guys! Or, two: you think Dream Theater is wanky? Wait ’til you hear these guys!
Time of Orchids, on the other hand, I knew from their latest release, Sarcast While. As I state in my review, it’s not an album that I am 100% enamoured with, but I like it a lot and was really excited to see these guys live. They didn’t disappoint. They were alternately powerful and beautiful, looked like they were having fun despite the fact that the audience could have easily fit in my apartment’s walk-in closet, and did a wicked awesome performance of “All You Ever Wish” to close out their brief set. Great stuff — one of those bands I became a bigger fan of after seeing them live.
Show number three was the best of the bunch: Present at Local 506 in Chapel Hill, NC. I had hoped to catch Present in Baltimore and Richmond as well, but as it happened this was the only show I was able to make (though I was sorely tempted to go up to NYC yesterday just to see their show there, but common sense — and financial sense — kicked in, alas). This show was fucking unbelievable. Let me say again: fucking unbelievable. Again, the audience was tiny, 20-30 people tops (though this was considerably larger than at the Behold/Orchids show). But the sound was good and the performance was breathtaking. Right from the beginning I knew I was going to be happy, because they opened their set with “Jack the Ripper” from one of my favorite albums ever, Univers Zero’s Heresie. I hesitate to call it a “cover” since I think Roger Trigaux might have written it — he was still in Univers Zero when Heresie was written. I’ll have to check the liner notes, or someone can tell me in the comments. Anyway, Present’s rendition of this song was tremendous — as one might expect, far more powerful and aggressive than the original.
Otherwise, they played the two long suites from No. 6, both of which were great but especially “Ceux d’en Bas”; two new pieces which sounded a little different from the rest of the band’s material — I don’t remember precisely how, but maybe a little less repetitive, with a few more symphonic flourishes; and closed the set with “Promenade au Fond d’un Canal” from the debut album. This closer was particularly stunning — the addition of the cello and reedist really fleshed out the sound of this piece, which sounds kind of spartan on the studio album.
Of particular note was Keith Macksoud on bass, who was just a total monster. He had a couple jaw-dropping solos and was always just huge. He actually broke a string on his bass twice (to go along with the cellist completely shredding his bow during “Jack the Ripper”). Also impressive was keyboardist Pierre Chevalier, who was playing repetitive themes with metronomic precision but also had some great freakouts and solos. Of course Dave Kerman was up to his usual tricks, bringing back the Barbie doll schtick I remember from NEARfest 2000 with Thinking Plague.
Really, the band was just the tightest, most powerful live beast I might have ever seen. Their show was easily the best I’ve witnessed thus far this year, next to Nels Cline and Wilco’s performance back in February (though that, of course, was a completely different game). I’m gratified to hear that they blew people away at NEARfest as well, and I hope the other shows they played were better-attended than the Chapel Hill gig. Truly, truly astounding stuff.
Finally: it was nice to get an opportunity to chat with various members of the aforementioned bands — Nils from SGM, Chuck and Jesse from Time of Orchids, and Udi from Present. All stand-up folks it seems, even as they play music that’s mean as hell!