The foyer was chaotic, like one of those hyper-dramatic scenes in movies where people seem almost hysterical at ticket booths to get in to whatever's going on behind the theatre doors. But once inside and wristbanded, people calmed down a bit -- some even went back out to smoke -- and I realized my mistake: No one was rushing out of the storm, they were here to see Lightning Bolt. They expected a storm tonight, a violent one. These people were exactly where they wanted to be.
Got your tickets guys, sold out show! was constantly ringing out from the foyer where likely a hundred Lightning Bolt fans were turned away. Again, I was skeptical of this Luminary place. How were they going to accommodate one of St. Louis' great purveyors of entropic sound (Spelling Bee), much less Lightning Bolt, a band more comfortable playing on city streets than in the stage lights of a venue proper? But, upon entering I saw two stages. One, the main stage, wired to the house sound system, riddled with instruments; then, a stage almost directly at the entrance with a psychedelic, misshapen drum set, bass guitar, pedals here and there, and a veritable wall of speakers and amps looming behind (the Marshall on one amp was reformed to spell harsh). Lightning Bolt's keep.
Mabel Suen and Joe Hess, aka Spelling Bee (and hosts of 88.1 KDHX's Wrong Division), set the pace for the night, bringing raw surging, basement-weathered sounds to a tingling crowd. A single light shone on the duo from above as they tore into their first song, Suen's gnashing guitar work actually done justice by the house speakers. Hess's drumming too came alive for me, both nuance and brutal tom-ride crashes driving the music more than ever. And their set was short and sweet, whetting the taste of the highly appreciative crowd for whatever madness was bound to come.
Parts & Labor took the stage next; as a four-piece, they were the largest ensemble of the night. They seemed ready, on top of their sound, coming off the momentum of the release of their latest album, Constant Future. But their glossy presentation, the-lost in-the-mix, irrelevant guitar work, lyrics delivered almost under the breath (as if vocalist Dan Friel was reconsidering what he wrote), and Joe Wong's stunning, ambidextrous, but nevertheless frequently over-the-top drumming all came together to warp their songs into complacency. At one point, Friel even looked frustrated at Wong's calamitous song-closing drum fill, its conventionality (snare to tom to floor tom triplets) suggesting boredom or the stiffness of the song more than an exciting finish. And the crowd thinned, clapped less, took a breather before the main event, which after all may have been a good thing.
A buzzing glob of audience had already surrounded Lightning Bolt's stage before Parts & Labor's set had even ended. Hardly anyone was buying beer at the bar or going to smoke or even drinking, because to be up close to Lightning Bolt is the only way to experience the band.
I slowly clawed my way up to about ten feet from the stage, and then saw drummer Brian Chippendale suddenly onstage, spastically arranging his kit, tossing out earplugs. Then, I heard the alloy fuzz and alien tones of Brian Gibson's bass, the volume rising with each note until you really couldn't hear anything but his bass. Chippendale donned his customary rag-mask (which holds his microphone to his face) and started pulsing out a slow-burning beat on his kick and ride.
The crowd got lost in the sound, bouncing, shifting against itself like a bunch of mad amoebas. Gibson's bass flickered alternately low and high end, and in an instant, Chippendale tore into a furious roll as if he had ripped open a space in the air for the bass to drill through. Everything was kinetic; it's nearly impossible to imagine this band playing an anything-less-than-intense set. Songs flowed into each other; melody slithered through the air a moment, then was shattered by the sheer ferocity of the drumming before your mind could catch up.
And it was loud. As I write this, my head still feels a bit like a diving helmet -- but maybe more so than with any other band I've seen, the loudness is essential to the energy.
Lightning Bolt put on a show to be experienced physically, visceral music of the highest order. After it was finished, nearly the whole crowd moved outside into the rain, near-deaf, drenched in sweat, talking probably much too loudly. Chippendale sat on the ground outside the door, exhausted, paying no attention to the storm.