"I've been practicing my nice-guy jokes," announced Rob Crow, midway through both a set of lo-fi math rock and what appeared to be an entire case of Newcastle. "Do you know this one about the interrupting cow?"
"MOO!" yelled someone in the back.
Rob continued thoughtfully to tune his guitar. "Knock knock," he said.
"MOO!" "Who's there?" "MOOOOOOO!"
"The interrupting cow," he replied. Pause.
"The interrupting cow … who?" asked a girl in front, helpfully. If you know the interrupting cow joke, you would realize at this point that Rob had missed his cue to shout "MOO!" in the middle of her sentence. Another pause. "MOOOO?"
"Oh, excuse me," said Rob, almost absentmindedly.
It was Pinback's first swing through St. Louis in more than a decade, and they were rewarded by an adoring crowd who sang along to favorites like "Penelope" and "Bloods on Fire." My attention was divided between a backdrop projected behind the drum kit, where a mashup of film clips and music videos -- including "Dark Star" and one particularly intriguing sci-fi gem where a troupe of leggy, intergalactic babes investigate what appears to be a sleeping robot-monster on a beach -- and Rob himself, who at various points throughout the evening cracked open his beer with a plastic water bottle (hydration is important, after all—the Firebird felt like soup) and writhed across the floor in a dance move approximating the worm, as Zach Smith, the diffident straight man of the duo, looked on without expression.
Pinback is known for complex indie rock that can turn a song about a goldfish ("Penelope") into what feels like a canonical postmodern statement on the passing of life and time. This is why, for a minute in 2001, they were the boys du jour of all the boys in my life. But since then the band has continued to make somewhat moody, melodic pop with a bent toward atypical song structure, albeit at a snail's pace (the excellent "Autumn of the Seraphs," from 2007, is its most recent full-length record -- although new material is forthcoming).
I had never caught the band live, and now I don't think recordings do them justice. Take "Loro," for instance, a beautifully languid song from their debut that came across as almost raucous live, while the normally mellow "Fortress" was a danceable number that had one of my friends threatening to perform a high kick. The dynamic between Rob and Zach (full name: Armistead Burwell Smith IV), the creative forces behind Pinback, is one of two longtime friends and collaborators who know each other's rhythm and style too well to be surprised by anything the other does. The more Newcastle Rob poured down his throat, the more his voice scraped and the more the crowd loved it. But it's Zach, whose raw, half-screamed, half-sung vocals belie a shy, restrained stage presence. Although their voices are both similar in range and pitch, the harmonies work and they toss verse and chorus back and forth to each other effortlessly.
The band lurched off the stage after playing for over an hour, and then waited several minutes until feverish applause and impatient chanting drew them back out for a four-song encore. In an admitted pander to the crowd, Rob (wearing a Clownvis t-shirt) professed love for St. Louis and reminded us to sign petitions on behalf of Pinback's namesake, the actor Dan O'Bannon, a native of our fair city, whose star is not yet engraved on the Delmar Loop.
We were left with a mixture of very new material from a record that will be released this year and generous helpings of "Summer in Abaddon" and "Autumn of the Seraphs." Rob gamely stuck around after to chat and pose for pictures. Let's hope it's not another decade before Pinback finds their way back to St. Louis again.