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photo cap: This one’s for the soldiers: The Decemberists at Pearl Street.

photo credit: Joe Putrock

O’er the Ramparts
By John Brodeur

The Decemberists, Lou Barlow, Norfolk and Western
Pearl Street Nightclub, Northampton, Mass., Sept. 28

The Decembrists of lore were a group of early-19th-century Russian revolutionaries. They have been referred to as the “gentlemen revolutionaries,” for they sought to upend the monarchy of Czar Nicholas I and abolish serfdom; noble causes both. The outright failure of their attempts notwithstanding, the enlightened young men wrote themselves into history by being the first insurgent group of their kind, and for sparking further revolt in their country.

While the Portland, Ore.-based Decemberists aren’t exactly revolutionary in their approach to musicmaking, their role-playing pop surely deserves a page in history, if only for its steadfast adherence to keeping things interesting—often in an early-19th-century way. The most accurate adjective to describe their average admirer would be “bookish” and, after seeing the band in action, it’s clear that they’re cut from the same cloth as their fans. One might assume that a Decemberists show would better resemble a poetry reading than a rock show. One would, of course, be wrong.

By the time the quintet filed onto the smallish club stage at Pearl Street last week, to a carnival march that sounded like incidental music from a Tom and Jerry cartoon, the temperature inside the club was roughly 300 degrees. The jam-packed room didn’t seem to mind, but the swelter took just a little of the heart, and a lot of the character (meant two different ways), out of some of the more picturesque lyrics.

Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t mean to imply that the diminished sentimentality was a bad thing. With their complex recorded arrangements scaled back for live presentation, the focus was less on intricacies, more on immediacy, and their 80-minute set was an exuberant blast of fresh air, even within the venue’s stuffy confines.

Make no mistake about the arrangements, either—all but singer-guitarist Colin Meloy managed to switch instruments at least once, consistently introducing new textures (Jenny Conlee ping-ponged between keyboard, melodica and accordion; guitarist Chris Funk spent several songs behind the pedal steel). They were appropriately loose and fun, yet rocked hard when called upon to do so.

And the songs, well, they were just great. The Decemberists have graduated from the straightforward pop-rock of their 3-year-old 5 Songs EP to the heavily Anglophilic lean of last year’s Her Majesty (and the recent The Tain EP), which resembles the Zombies of Odessey and Oracle via Neutral Milk Hotel—that is, if Jeff Mangum were a little more durable and a lot less Jesus-freaky. However, Meloy’s a more elastic and literate songwriter than Mangum, Costelloesque in his ability to fit a 12-syllable lyric to an eight-syllable musical phrase (not to mention his thesaurical word choices), and his reedy tenor is more emotive and expressive than one might initially discern. On the gorgeous “Grace Cathedral Hill” (from 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts), the crowd became lemmings to Meloy’s romantic plight as he sang, “Sweet on a green-eyed girl, all fiery Irish clip and curl, all brine and piss and vinegar.” While this may or may not be the start of a pop revolution, consider it at the very least a warning shot.

Hometown hero-of-sorts Lou Barlow was a flat disappointment in his solo set. The Sebadoh/Folk Implosion leader was greeted by cheers of recognition as he tuned his guitar (which he should have done far more often—many songs were marred by an outrageously flat E string), but the enthusiasm died down as soon as he began playing. He was humble at first, laughing off a few missed high notes in his opening tune, but he can’t have thought it was a good idea to tell the audience he has a “giant chip on my shoulder” every time he visits the club on whose stage he is performing. The material didn’t help him along any; he played an awkward, uneven set, chock full of overtly sentimental quasi-ballads. It sounded as if he were trying to revisit his best moment, the gorgeous “Willing to Wait” (from Sebadoh’s Harmacy LP), but routinely came up way short of that song’s stark perfection.

Although the material improved as the set progressed, for every “Hey, that was OK” moment, there was one of “What the fuck is he thinking?,” usually coinciding with his use of a boomy synthesizer. It’s debatable whether the synth was even worth having onstage in the first place, but it was a grave miscalculation on his part to attempt to switch between the two instruments midsong; he did so on several occasions, but never smoothly. Barlow closed by sweetly leading the crowd in a round of “Happy Birthday” for his father (who was in the audience), then performing a song he composed for his father that ran about three times too long. Yikes.

Norfolk and Western were a pleasant surprise in their unbilled opening set. The duo of singer-guitarist Adam Selzer—decked out in a brown button-down shirt and derby, he was the spitting image of a 22-year-old Tom Waits—and drummer-vibraphonist Rachel Blumberg (pulling a doubleheader with the headliners) channeled the lovelorn Beck of Sea Change through the musical aesthetic of Galaxie 500. If I didn’t know any better, I would swear I heard tape hiss over the audience’s collective hush. Melancholy, understated, and gosh-darn pretty.

Take Your Punishment

Shadows Fall, Candiria, All That Remains
Saratoga Winners, Oct. 2

Another show at Winners, number 179 for me, according to family records. The place was awash with a scary cross-
section of lawbreakers, possibly the best-attended show I’ve ever seen at the place. I wish they’d open up the second tier already, but I’m sure they are concerned about liability, about scary young delinquents dumb enough to hurl themselves from it onto unsuspecting concertgoers below. Why? Because there are parents dumb enough to think that it’s the club’s fault and would seek monetary restitution for damages and emotional trauma. I know I whine about it a lot, but they make you park in the goddamned everglades, fighting off possums and raccoons in the ass end of a tropical drenching, only to just barely squeeze into the joint, jockeying for liquor, and then you look up to see all of this unused space. Occasionally, a light guy will be allowed up there to futz around, looking grumpy and hungry. Yeah, pal, well at least you can breathe, OK? What’s more important, food or air?

Yet, there is a certain twisted charm to it, the five measly bottles of low-grade booze perched next to the register, the unhappy servers in halter tops, the crumbling toilets, the annoying black lights, Salam and his brother walking around looking nervous. 20 years of nervousness. I don’t know why they do it, but I secretly suspect—besides the money—that they are true Hessians. Hessians via Pakistan, taking stone-faced pleasure in bands like Shadows Fall, who are welcomed back repeatedly to blast the rickety roadhouse back to the days of the Wild West, or earlier. And loving it.

Shadows Fall are mighty, at the top of their game, and you can bet that Saturday’s show will be the last time we see them in a nightclub for a spell. I spy drummer Jay Bittner chugging a beer back by the bar; he confides that they may hit the road with Slipknot this fall in small and midsize arenas. God bless them. And like their Iowan compatriots, Shadows Fall are blowing up huge. There were a detestable number of humans in attendance, rubbing up against me, leering, their snippets of conversation grating on my patience. Thankfully, Shads’ live intensity diverts you, but not from the dynamic quality of their songs. Vocalist Brian Fair speaks of madness, of peace, of quality and quantity and abhorrence, and he does it in relatively conventional terms. This is where the band’s splendor lies. An evocation of pure emotion. They know exactly how to transcribe a nervous shakedown (“Destroyer of Senses” and “The Idiot Box” are excellent examples), how to capture the already emotionally challenged (i.e. us) and push them even further over the edge. On one hand it’s an art, on the other a deliberate science. Not every metal band can whip up a pit like that, where you can see a choleric charge in the eyes. The nails grow. The muscles become bruised from high contact in an organic whirlpool of flesh. A punishing example of natural selection, and not without its assholes, of course.

Every Darrow has his William Jennings Bryan, and one kid specifically came to mind. It is always a puny specimen, not man enough to step into the real pit, which oddly enough yawned vertically like a feeding frenzy in a velodrome toward the mixing boards. Instead, he went into his little windmill routine in a pack just standing there trying to enjoy the marvelous trouncing being administered from the stage, punching girls, spilling drinks and giving contemptuous glares to anyone who confronted him. “Get the fuck off me!” he spewed contemptuously, flexing his tiny frame. (Author yawns, pushes toward speaker column, places left ear directly in cone to ease the pain.)

And said pain was eased nicely. Cuts from the new CD, The War Within, were succinct and stunning, meshing nicely with battle-tested classics like “Thoughts Without Words” and “A Fire in Babylon.” Specifically, “What Drives the Weak,” “Act of Contrition,” the molten thrasher “The Power of I and I” paralyzed the brain and purged all the awful thoughts of home ownership and track lighting I’d been having all day. Kills bugs dead.

And the Shads simply killed, yes, but it was a foregone conclusion. The big surprise of the evening, however, was the set by All That Remains. Fronted coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) by former Shadows Fall singer Phillip Labonte, these guys were tighter than a tattoo on a tummy tuck. Labonte has a truly incredible voice, with a range and diversity that gives the silver-toungued Fair a run for his hard-won dollars. The band has seen some recent lineup changes but still delivered crushing titles from This Darkened Heart and Behind Silence and Solitude with hard class and determined chins. Candiria rounded the bill out and infused the affair with some welcome diversity, but, well, I can’t seem to get behind them. They are incredibly talented, but they do a lot of bouncing around, dwelling in some discordant mania that diminishes the effect they are trying to achieve, I think. There’s a lot of crunching along in Unknown Chord Land, and a lot of times it sounds like a hiphop influenced cockfight between Miles Davis and the guys from Helmet. And I put on my own helmet, to ward off the swooping avian predators as I went to look for my car. I carefully removed a drunken lad from my hood, pasted a Gwar flyer to his forehead as he lay in the wet ryegrass and was off to the showers. Showers fall, too.

—Bill Ketzer

On the Attack

Anthrax, Last Call, Brick by Brick
Northern Lights, Sept. 28

Wow. A window of oppor-tunity. The mighty Anthrax chose Northern Lights for their single warm-up date before heading out with Ronnie James Dio on a tour of bigger halls. Looking slick and ageless, our men swung into action amid a few hundred people, mainly young hardcore kids, which I guess wasn’t bad for a Tuesday night. The old fist-bangers from the days of yore were strangely underrepresented, perhaps opting to lie hypnotized by Adult Swim or to embark on a career in auto racing somewhere, so the club’s newly cavernous renovations made the place look desolate, which is somewhat of a relief during flu season. No shirtless guys with big boobies lathering your exposed parts with generous portions of onion-soup body filth.

It was weird. For about six minutes out of the entire night, the place erupted in terrific, unmitigated violence. It was during Anthrax’s powerful opener “N.F.L. (Efilnikufesin)” that some fool must have pressed the “attack” button, and the pit was quickly awash in total, deliberate fisticuffs. I took a meaty shot to the jaw by a young brute who just started swinging wildly at everyone for no reason (you know the type). My tongue swirled and tasted blood and chipped molars as I caught him by the head, twisting it to face me. I slammed his back into a support column, his arms splaying outward as Bud bottles that had been stacked around it flew like bowling pins. I hopped toward him as our eyes met, but that was when the wash of security poured over us like 1,000 ham sandwiches. Good god. I wasn’t anywhere near the pit and now I have to chew on the right side of my mouth until I can see the tooth guy.

But I forgot all about it in 10 minutes’ time. Even as the mighty Brooklynites delivered what was shaping up to be a predictable set, with standards like “Got the Time,” “Indians,” “Antisocial” and the latter-day stompers “Refuse to Be Denied” and “Safe Home,” winning the day, I was put at a sort of menacing ease by the sheer volume of it all. It rattled the ribcage at a good 95 decibels at least, which is a good range for memory loss and alcoholic misanthropy. It was comforting but a little run-of-the-mill, and I was about to retire to the cheap seats when a wondrous thing happened. Singer Jon Bush began hinting at nuggets, and guitarist-resident unibrow Scott Ian twitched excitedly as the band unexpectedly burst into seismic versions of “Deathrider” and “Panic,” both from 1984’s Fistful of Metal, the one that started it all. Bush, joined at his side by Armored Saint alumnus Joey Vera on bass (he replaces longtime bassist Frank Bello—keep it in the family indeed), was magnanimous and deafening in his interpretations of such Neil Turbin-era wonders. In fact, he makes all the previous Anthrax screamers sound like Kate Smith yelping from the top of the stairs just prior to lapsing into the diabetic coma that ran her through in 1986. Tasteless? OK. Truth? You betcha.

Sadly, the old-school thrash was lost on the hardcore kids. They do not possess necks like cottonwood trees from 20 years of headbanging. They can’t “dance” to it. But they could get down and do all those weird, kooky flips and what not to Troy’s Last Call, who delivered some good hardcore in support of their latest CD The After Hours in between singer Ralph Renna’s hilarious interludes. Unwavering in their mission to carry the torch of Troycore into the new millennium with their maximum-strength attack, the band blasted through a cache of strong tunes, including “Ghost in the Mirror” and “The Deep End.” Unfortunately, they were forced to withstand a bad PA mix (no toms, barely audible leads, vocals overpowering the lord Jesus Christ himself), which badly misrepresented their talent. I have the new disc and know that they are capable, so it’s a shame that they were powerless over their sound.

Also from the Collar City was Mike Valente’s new Brick by Brick, which was an exercise in pure high-decibel destruction. Valente has never been about flashiness or savoir faire—he just drop-tunes, turns it up and tries successfully to overpower you with sheer volume. The deep-seated riffage started things off on a good note. It reminded me of Captain Crunch. So I went home and devoured some. On the right side of my mouth.

—Bill Ketzer


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