Over the past few weeks I've been spinning the fuck out of Chavez' recently-released Matador retrospective, Better Days Will Haunt You, to which I've had a pretty odd reaction: even after listening to the whole damn thing several times through, I still have no idea what to make of this band. Are they good? Do they suck? What about them is so friggin' "influential?" Why can't I figure this out?
And, having just returned home from a Chavez live performance (their "reunion" show at Warsaw), I still feel pretty much the exact same way about 'em. Definitely not a bad band, but I can't say that I get why they're placed in such high regard. Obviously, I missed out on these guys the first time around in the mid-nineties, so I'm lacking perspective as to where they fit into the grander scheme of indie rock. For example, do Comets on Fire consider Chavez an influence? How about Boris? I mean, obviously Chavez' sound is heavily rooted in grunge, but it's not like they were forerunners in that genre -- not by a longshot. And, yes, there's a shitload of screechy noise, courtesy of the unorthodox stylings of indie-hunk Clay ["Riff" Gui-]Tarver. But compared to the really groundbreaking stuff being created by some of today's premier "Noise"-merchants, Chavez sounds kinda quaint. Again, not the least bit unpleasant, but still just kinda.... meh.
Endless Boogie, by the way, was very entertaining. This was the second time I've seen them live, the first being in an opening slot at Bowery Ballroom some time within the last couple of years. (Something makes me think it was at the Comets on Fire/Sightings show I saw, but I could be wrong there.) These guys can stretch a single southern rock/bluesy theme for over 15 minutes without boring the shit out of me, which really is quite a feat. Great in-the-pocket rhythm section, devoted rhythm guitarist, with the lead guitar showing off impressive chops without getting all widdly-widdly on us. Good shit.
'06 is destined to be remembered by me as "the year I saw all those shows." I doubt that I'll ever be able to do this much showgoing, for two simple reasons: 1.) my job, which I really would like to keep, requires that I get up at 6 AM every day. This is not conducive to going out on weeknights. 2.) My physical condition is worsening every day. Between my back, my knees, my ankles and my feet, I really don't expect much improvement. At this rate I'm going to need a kickstand attachment if I'm going to be attending General Admission shows, sooner rather than later.
Anyway, I'm now up to 50 concerts attended this year, and with any luck that number may increase this weekend (Panthers Sunday night perhaps?). When you get out that often and go to that many shows, you're going to be turned on to all kinds of new shit that otherwise you would never have sought out on your own. Truth be told, I have practically no friends who give a holy horsefuck about indie rock, so the only semi-reliable sources of new music info I have are Pitchfork, Postal Blowfish (a Guided by Voices mailing list), and live performances. Fortunately, amongst the shows I've seen there have been some geniunely oddball bills, none more incongruous than when Death Vessel opened up for Mission of Burma in mid-July at Warsaw in Brooklyn.
Honestly, are there two acts that have less in common than MoB and Death Vessel? In MoB's case, you have middle-aged New Englanders playing their brand of deafening/angular/muscular/tuneless/syncopated/anti-melody. Death Vessel, on the other hand, consists solely of tiny Joel Thibodeau, androgynous in both appearance and voice, gently fingerplucking a miniature acoustic guitar.
I remember being out of the room when the Death Vessel performance started, eating some of Warsaw Bistro's own pirogis and kielbasa by the merch stand. I don't even remember hearing the soundman cutting the preshow music; instead I was lured towards the stage by the music being performed. Immediately puzzled by Thibodeau's gender bending appearance, I also initially (and, in retrospect, somewhat embarrassingly) found myself trying to figure out exactly what the _language_ was in which the lyrics were being sung. Of course, it was English, but with a unique nuanced enunciation, seemingly representing a gaelic tongue, perhaps mixed with some type of quaint, elfin dialect known only by toadstool-hoppers and berry scavengers. It wasn't until I fully understood the opening song's chorus ("now that yoooove dropped the A-bomb") that I was given any confirmation that the performer onstage was, in fact, actually of this world.
It seemed as though much of the crowd shared my intrigue; those who had arrived early were staring silently, some even seated on Warsaw's dance floor, reverentially inviting every syllable to sink in. With a performance as delicate as this, any minor disturbance in the crowd could have destroyed the room's perfect balance and crystal-clear acoustics, and thankfully the crowd remained well-behaved.
The highlights of the set were "Deep in the Horchata," "Later in Life Lift" and a song whose title I was unable to identify, which had the simple chorus of "don't laugh, don't laugh." Mostly, the songs were minor key and mournful, and delivered with a quiet urgency similar to Mia Doi Todd. Some sample lyrics:
You've put a mute on cicada's song Now that you've dropped the A-Bomb
What could I do to make you say enough? Now that I have gone and shut up?
Now, make no mistake, I am fully aware of how the very nature of an acoustic performance can be very manipulative. By relying on sparer musicianship, it's easy to mistake a simple reduction in volume for something genuinely "heart-rending" or overly sincere. But Death Vessel's oeuvre should not be confused with "Godsmack Unplugged" or some other such vainglorious bullshit. Thibodeau's songs stand up to the scrutiny, however, and are matched by a Jeff Mangum-like flair for off-kilter accenting and pronunciation.
Later in the month I again had the privilege of catching a Death Vessel opening set, this time at Webster Hall opening up for Os Mutantes. Unlike the thoughtful, considerate crowd at Warsaw, the audience was largely intoxicated and very chatty. But this time the performance, to me, came to represent something different: where at Warsaw I had been captivated by the simple beauty emanating from the stage, struck dumb by an unexpected treat, at Webster Hall Thibodeau's performance illustrated the importance of appreciating beauty when ya can get it, since in life we're often surrounded by inconsiderate, loud, irritating morons. Well, something like that, except less lame.