Wednesday night at the Firebird was a showcase of bands moving at the fringes (or in Yowie's case, just completely outside) of anything music critics try to mold into genres, each band's live show doing them varying degrees of justice.
Britches ripped the night wide open (adorned in furry dog masks, no less), putting the willing crowd through their digital thresher and showing why they're one of St. Louis' busiest and most exciting acts to come along in years. Watching Britches, two things are immediately evident: the distinct danger and swirl of the sound and the confidence every member has in presenting it.
There is something that you can't put your finger on -- maybe it's the childish/fetishist headgear, the keen edge of absurd humor and movement (bassist Bryant Hoban hunches in a bounce like a monkey), the seamlessness of their set (each song is joined by a wordless, crunching soundscape like crepitus'd joints), and the strong emotional undercurrent of something-is-wrong flowing through all the songs. Their music cut through a lot of the empty space that exists at the beginning of any show, the sparseness of their arrangements and brittleness of their sound drawing in anyone who did get there on time.
Yowie played next, but we'll get back to them. Gnarwhal, out of Nashville, took the stage as a two piece -- drums and guitar -- looking at little rushed and flustered. They blasted through their set almost as if they wanted just to get through it. The vocals were completely lost in the wires, and the guitar parts couldn't be fully heard or appreciated in the rush of sound. Partly, I owed this to the nature of their music. Like Lightning Bolt, it is virtuosic, technical stuff awash with fuzz and purr, but the lack of cohesion in their sound breaks the energy a bit, takes you out of the music when you want to join in with them.
Which leads to another key factor regarding their set: vocalist Chappy announced to the crowd that a couple of their members (the other guitarist and their bassist) quit recently, and the two remaining members have had to write new songs. It wasn't a plea for sympathy, but it help put their set in perspective. These guys had been, and were, working their asses off, and still believed wholly in what they were doing. With such surging energy and ability, I couldn't doubt their dedication.
Marnie Stern's set began and ended in intensity: Her lightning flourishes of hammer-ons rode on tidal, more-is-more drumming. But it took a few songs for them (or the songs) to get in the slipstream; the set like a puzzle for the audience's ears, each song a piece that they shaped, but couldn't quite fit together for the first half of their time.
Stern's studio work soars and jags and grinds up pop on a dime, but live, the instruments can sound too isolated, unglued. I kept faith though, and it paid off. It was Stern's request for the crowd to start clapping, which led into her stream-of-consciousness, kick-starting chant into "Prime" that seemed to finally get the whole band on the same beat. Everything started making sense. Of course, I was in awe of the drummer Vince Rogers' impossible, ear-glitter precision and quickness on the drums, and of Stern's incredible sonic brew of tapping, singeing power-chords, mutes, harmonics, all threaded together and timed perfectly; but her voice was the glue I needed to hear, the thing that ultimately makes her music honest and beautiful and funny and harrowing along with the intensity of the musicianship.
Yowie didn't headline, but they do deserve a special spot in this review. Following Britches, they completed the one-two punch of St. Louis bands on this night, and man, did they do us proud. In the midst of some of the most virtuosically talented and respected musicians playing today, Yowie is singular. It is a band made up of two guitarists and a drummer, playing only their fourth show since 2009. I'm inclined to describe the set in only one-liners.
- Watching them live is like witnessing a reptile birth a human; utterly perplexing, yet amazing.
- Trying to recall their set list is like trying to remember North Dakota's state capital moments after a tornado sent a brick into your temple.
- Comparing them to other bands in a review is not a good idea.
Yowie's songs happen like accidents to your ears; but they are very obviously the explosive result of an inhumane amount of time and work. The members of the band would not let you believe this live. They deliver their completely strange, bombastic, gutturally funky shit often with wide grins or just complete indifference. Their songs move like symphonies, each one crafted in parts that come together to sound like time-lapses of a day in your life. The dual guitars warp around each other, the necks being bent, the floods of notes sounding at times like your uncle choking, then laughing, then wrecking his car. Guitarist Jeremiah throttles his guitar for atonal bass notes, hammering-on here, wringing out a single note for two measures there. Meanwhile, drummer Shawn matches him sound-for-sound on his massive kit, bending time with sheets of 32nd notes, then switching to half-time.
It is mind-bending music. People were moving, not yet knowing how to dance to it, but not caring.