The Gary, Shells, Blue Kabuki
I first saw Blue Kabuki at the Midgetmen's Neil Young tribute night. By the way they handled their business on "Hey Hey My My," I knew I needed to see a set of their original stuff as soon as I could. Now I need to go and see a full set, because Anna and I got there a bit late tonight. I saw enough to know that they're the real deal. Super-loud kick drumming locks in with the big strokes on a meanly downtuned guitar. I love bass players. I think almost any band without one could use one. But Blue Kabuki have it down so tight that they pull the duo thing off. The way the drummer makes up for the leftover space with pure force reminds me of Local H, a great Chicago band who deserved to be more than a one-hit wonder.
I've seen Shells a few times before, but never anywhere with good sound. Hearing them clearly and well-mixed pushed my estimation of them up a few notches. I thought they were good before; now I think they're damn good. It's funny how setlist choices can change the way you enter and follow the progress in a set. I've always read Shells as a blues-influenced band but last night at Cheer Up Charlies bassist Mike told me they listened to a lot of country too. They opened their set tonight with their most overtly shufflin' tune, city names in the lyics and everything, and it made me surprised their country jones never became obvious to me before. That's another good reason bands should try and write songs in multiple styles -- an audience can receive and warm to you in an entirely different way if you begin with different-styled openers each time. Boy, they're a good live band. After two years together they should probably have some stage tuners, though. The major thing about them I would change if it were up to me would be song lengths. Ryan Lentell's guitar solos are great and never too long, which you seldom see with players this good. He has a way of bending a single note in just that soulful wrong-but-right timing that makes me go "Woo!" before I even think about it. But frequently they intro a song with an instrumental that's the same as the verse and pull it out a little longer than necessary. They could start more songs going right into the verse, or use two forms instead of four. And more of a suggestion than a criticism: Mike gave me some nice comments about my writing that really picked me up in a big way the other night. He's a charmer. I think he should do the talking in between songs, if it needs to be done. It would fit the fire and ice balance he and Ryan have. Mike rocks out, hard, throwing his whole body about and going to his knees or over the drums if that's what the intensity of the moment calls for. Ryan communicates so effectively with his guitar that it doesn't matter that he doesn't dance a ton or have any knack for stage patter.
We ran over to see Western Ghost House at Emo's, but only in time for their last song. However: It was a knockout. It was good enough that I not only thought of several things I wanted to say about it, but I've resolved to see a full show of theirs as soon as I possibly can. Here's what they did: As I walked in, they were playing a very homey, very well-worn chord progression. They were tight, and the singer immediately impressed me (which is rare because I don't particularly listen for or have a particular affinity for singers). But just as I was about to write their songwriting off, KABLAM it went in a totally different rhythmic direction, the singer started to really grow on me, the drums handled the change completely on point and continued to rock out, the lead guitar went somewhere way different than he was when I came in. And then the song had another change where the same thing happened again. Well, hell yeah. I'm not going to try and describe their sound having only heard one song live, but... yeah, go see them.
I wish Emo's sound guys didn't try to make every drummer sound like "When the Levee Breaks." Going right from Beerland to Emo's, the contrast was extreme. Although by the same token drummers should know how to express their wishes to the sound guy if a mighty, reverberating, kick-centric arena sound isn't right for their playing style or their band.
Back to Beerland for The Gary. Every time I listen to them, even, let alone see them, I fall in love with them more and more. I've always appreciated Dave Norwood's singing in an academic sense: from the first I loved the way his low voice worked in tandem with his unique bass playing, and I knew his lyrics were really special. But I'm different from most music fans in that I really concentrate on singing last of all when I listen to anything. I go drums, guitar, bass, vocals in that order. I mostly write about instrumental performance because I think most people barely give that stuff any consideration at all, and I hate being like everybody else. But I listen to The Gary's records a lot. And also Jared from the Sour Notes told me something after that Neil Young show that totally made me go back and listen to them some more just purely focusing on the vocals. Jared said they "won" the night (which had a whole bunch of local bands giving their own spin on NY compositions) and what stood out to him was Dave's passion belting out the lyrics (which he had totally just learned and was reading off a sheet of paper). Could he sing the phone book and make it poignant? Totally, if he found a way to invest it with the joyful twilight desperation of The Gary's music and his own lyrics. Anna says they sound like a midlife crisis, but I don't think they're quite as bleak or dark as they would seem if you took every word literally. Their songs are often about people giving up on going nowhere. But their music itself is a celebration of the fact, one shot through with the intensity of a terminal illness, that for these guys it's getting dark but it's not dark yet. The fact that they can do this now but can't do it forever inspires them, and it's beautiful.