We made our way last night to the Tractor Tavern in Ballard to take in the War on Drugs show. The sound was great, the band was great, etc.
Those guys really love what they’re doing, and the swirling, tinkling ambience they coax out of the combination of guitars, a Rhodes, samplers, a backline, and a bass just never sounds wrong.
The openers were Carter Tanton and Purling Hiss. Carter Tanton played tunes that were definitely cut from the same remnants of Technicolor dreamdenim as the headliners, with hints of Baba O’Reilly floating out of the guitar tinkle now and again. My wife described them as sounding a bit like the Cure covering the War on Drugs. Oh, Jesus! I’m feebly gumming rock critic similes! You decide! Purling Hiss was unabashed cock-rocking burnout guitar solo metal and good times.
Some facts of secondary relevance: I’ve only ever seen or heard alt-country labeled bands at shows that are the provenance of guilty, guardedly fearful financial organizations (Son Volt upwards of 3 times during New York’s summer-long outdoor River-to-River festival, popularly known as “The-City-Makes-a-Nearly-Empty,-Painless-Gesture-to-the Sucker-Hopeful-Future-Bourgeois-Paying-the-City’s-Rents Concert Series”), as part of a neighborhood arts organization’s summer to-do (Wilco at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center), thanks to a gesture of largesse by the caliph of an inland city-state to his teeming, restive plebes (Wilco again, debuting “I am Trying to Break your Heart” at the Taste of Chicago”), and by dint of that careworn, if obfuscative, axiom, “A rising tide lifts all boats” (enjoying the acoustic perfection from where I sat with my back leaned against the back wall of the bandshell during yet another Wilco set. They were playing for paying ticket-holders at Brooklyn’s McCarren Park Pool that night— this was before the gated-community set, whose fortresses continue to go up in Williamsburg, decided their kids need a place to swim other than the ocean since their money and numbers have ensured Frank Serpico’s services are no longer really required there, prompting the city to decree that the pool would be restored to working order, no longer used as a concert venue). And, recently, on Monday night I got to see the fantastic Old 97s play at the Showbox at the Market in Seattle through the good graces of Easy Street Records. This is to say I’ve only ever seen this brainy, frank, hopeful, tender, egalitarian and plain-spoken genre of minstrelsy performed gratis.
But why is that? Indie rock, I love you and every other over-confident, stars-in-their-eyes, innovative, cock’o the walk flavor of the minute blog sensation youthful bravura tempts into swelling your ranks, but how easy is it to enjoy the shows your stable puts on with all that courtly intrigue and those transactions of cultural capital poisoning the air? The concert venue is a house of prayer, but you are dividing it into a house of specialized niche musical self-marketing content exchanged so hipsters can get laid! Galilee’s scene is so over! Why am I swilling my beer money away at your shows? Alt-country shows— this is where all the other folks in western shirts have been taking their R&R. I think I’ve found my people.
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Monday’s Old 97s show brought a smile to my face and reminded me of two reasons why I got hooked on seeing live music to begin with. The first is that hanging out in a room full of people who are just happy to be gathered to hear music- good or bad- is good juju. Alt-country, country-rock—however you choose to term this stuff, it is blessed with the best crowds. The second is that there’s something transcendental about being part of that artist-audience circuit when the performers are as happy to be there as the fans are.
Alt-country isn’t a form that requires a constant virtuosity. It honestly and openly relies on hokey tropes hearkening back to long-quelled booms and forgotten busts when there were such things as cowboys and overnight boom towns. The only thing this requires is that everyone be in on it. With a wink and a smile, the Old 97s most certainly are. This doesn’t rob the act or the genre of authenticity. If, as they say in the academy, I may make an intertextual reference, there are some Silver Jews lyrics that speak better to what I’m trying to get at than I can do myself,:
When you know how I feel I feel better/When you’re 15 you want to look poor./Do unto others, and run like a mother/I don’t want to look poor anymore. -Silver Jews, “Buckingham Rabbit”
No one wants to be the coal miner’s daughter, and most of us probably aren’t. It’s still good, in the knowledge we’re all, artist and audience alike, getting screwed somehow, to catch the momentary pit stop distraction of our collective candles burning brightest as we make our tumbleweed’s journey to the ignominy of the grave. It’s also real good to don a western shirt with pearlized buttons and stand in a loud room.
And did I say that alt-country doesn’t require virtuosity? Perhaps, but please don’t think I malign the headliners of Monday’s show. The harmony and the sorrow in Monday night’s rendition of “Valentine” brought a genuine tear to my eye, and the twanged-up Dick Dale fury of Ken Bethea’s lead guitar made me happy to be alive.