The Shaky Hands
As far as I’m concerned, these guys made two mistakes right off: They took the stage a little after noon when everyone was still nursing hang-overs, and they played with the sun reflecting off thee cliffs in the background, which makes for some truly shitty pictures (see above). Otherwise a solid performance. The Shaky Hands have a classic guitar-rock sensibility, but confine it to an indie-rock structure, squeezing all the jammy bits to small accents and punctuations. Not bad, but they were clearly still warming up, understandably not wasting their A-game on the groggy crowd, which watch indifferently, like a herd of cattle in plastic framed hipster sunglasses.
The Paper Chase
Dallas’s the Paper Chase, (sometimes known as the pAper chAse; someone in the band totally doesn’t get how caps lock works) started their set with a shrieking air-raid siren and only got noisier. I missed these guys when they came to San Antonio a few months back, and I’m really sorry I did. They match a relentless punk rhythm to abstract noises and bassist Bobby Weaver has a totally sweet beard. But the rock star onstage is unequivocally singer-guitarist John Congleton. Congleton’s not coincidentally the only member of the band not wearing sunglasses, apparently so he can make some intense-to-the-point-of-being-uncomfortable eye contact with members of the audience. “We know where you sleep,” he screamed at one point, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one who checked under the bed before tucking myself in. But he also had like one fourth of the audience singing along with every song, and with good reason. All that incredible volume is obscuring some pretty intriguing shit: “You were a good man for the state, but you’re no longer needed here,” Congleton manages to express at one point before keyboardist Sean Kirkpatrick pounds the keys and drowns him out. A great stage show that demands some obsessive at-home listening. I suggest you start now. If you’ve noticed that the pictures are much better for this show, that’s because this is when my wife Lauren Martin took the camera away from me and started taking the photos herself.
Following Paper Chase, Portland’s Horse Feathers acoustic set-up seemed completely out of place, and the sound wasn‘t adjusted to suit them. Vocalist Justin Ringle’s gentle tenor has a male beauty you don’t normally here outside of shitty James Blunt castrato pop, and he deserves credit for, and it would’ve been nice if they’d given his mic some more juice. While he strums the guitar, a cellist a violinist and a banjo player accompanied at approximately the volume of a drinking fountain. It’s got an Appalachian feel, but violinist Nathan Crockett is most definitely not a fiddle player. Instead, he and cellist Catherine O’Dell (and sometimes multi-instrumentalist Sam Cooper, who occasionally plays second not-fiddle) are a bona fid strings section. Other instruments onstage: an adorable baby drum kit, a mandolin, a glockenspiel, and a freaking saw. All this auxiliary instrumentation only made brief appearances, adding tiny embellishments to the songs. The comparison to Iron & Wine is too obvious to be of much use to anyone.
Thao with the Get Down Stay Down
“We haven’t played in a while,” vocalist Thao Nguyen explains “so I’m a little out of shape.” You might think she meant to say “practice,” but you’d be wrong; then again, so was she. Drummer Willis Thompson and bassist Adam Thompson spotted Nguyen while she balanced serious bouts of No Depression with tropical melodic guitar plucking and even a little beat-boxing:
At one point Nguyen asked for requests, and a few people (possible plants) in the audience for maybe the first time ever in the history of concerts screamed to hear a new song. Nguyen complied, unveiling “Body,” saying, “I haven’t finished writing it yet, but fuck it.” The song was by far the heaviest and most exciting of the set, swapping the alt-country bounce for hardcore shrieks and garage guitar abuse. It’s time to put down the pen, Thao.
Marnie Stern’s appearance at the Kill Rock Stars party confirmed something I’ve suspected for a while now: She’s one of the best most guitar players alive. Not in terms of technical skill or wanking speed, but because her self-taught finger tapping and alien sense of rhythm are the most interesting sounds coaxed from a guitar since Thurston Moore shoved a drumstick under the strings. The show in all honesty was actually a little off -- her rhythm section had some serious trouble keeping up at times, even though her touring drummer was playing a simplified version of the percussion Zach Hill played on the album (most noticeably in the frantic closer “Prime”) though, to be fair, I strongly suspect that Hill is actually some type of cyborg. I’d never seen Stern before, so I was mostly just glad to discover that this tiny, adorable 30-something who records manic pep-rally chants over violent guitar assaults actually exists and isn’t the creation of a record label. She sounds like the subject of a Disney Channel movie of the week, but she’s for real and we've got the video to prove it:
On the opposite end of the rock spectrum, now-power-trio the Thermals almost always stick to the power-chord-heavy alt-rock blueprint, and they never missed a beat. Lead singer and guitarist Hutch Harris manages to avoid staleness mostly through some incredible songwriting, delivering clever religious and political screeds in a pissed off but charismatic voice. Those lyrics were less intelligible live than I’d have liked, but the band’s single-minded intensity kept it interesting. The fact that Harris was wearing what appeared to be the bottom half of a woman’s bathing suit and had the word “slut” written in magic marker across his stomach probably didn‘t hurt either. The set list consisted mostly of songs from their upcoming album, Now We Can See, but included “A Pillar of Salt” from 2006’s phenomenal The Body, the Blood, and the Machine, and a cover of Nirvana’s “Verse Chorus Verse.” The catchy title track from their new album closed the set with this gloomy meditation on America’s Hope-era hypocrisy and deadbeat dad urges: Yeah baby we were savage. We existed to kill. Our history is damaged, at least it was a thrill. But now we can see! Now that our vision is strong, we don’t have to admit we were wrong. I can’t see any reason these guys aren’t one of the biggest bands in the world.