TARA JANE O'NEIL
BOOTLEG THEATER, LA
19 JUNE, 2013Come as more of a comet. Sightings, particularly these days, are very rare, but they still burn bright. Coming of age in the great alternative boom of the 90's, they never went big, but they went deep, marking those who heard their music for life. In 2010, the original lineup of Thalia Zedek, Chris Brokaw, Sean O'Brien, and Arthur Johnson came back together to help celebrate Matador 21, and this year's appearance on the horizon is linked to Matador's reissue of their debut LP 11:11. After a short European jaunt, they turned their attention stateside, kicking off the U.S. tour with this date at the Bootleg Theater in L.A.
It was a ferocious set, focused on their first two albums, leading off with debut single "Car" and proceeding at an unrelenting pace. The European dates paid off in spades, as the band was locked in, seemingly oblivious to the years spent apart, hitting on all cylinders. Mission Of Burma, (also from Boston), is the only band I've seen come off a hiatus fully locked and loaded. While not Beethoven, it's certainly not The Ramones, and the various elements that made the band so distinctive originally were fully accounted for: the tense guitar intertwining of Zedek and Brokaw, and the telepathic, and occasionally psychopathic rhythm section of O'Brien and Johnson, steering the dynamic changes of the tunes. Interesting to note that later, O'Brien admitted to having a hard time hearing his bass onstage, and major testimony to his skills that it wasn't at all evident. Johnson's drumming takes on another dimension live, especially in a small room, and his enthusiasm underlined the celebratory nature of what we were seeing. It's so easy to get caught up in the darkness of the songs, and one's own personal connections to them and overlook the fact that being in this room, at this time, was a minor miracle of sorts.
Chris Brokaw, having just played the Bootleg Bar in the front of the house a few short months ago, seemed totally at home, patrolling the edge of the stage, and pulling off his guitar conversation with Zedek flawlessly throughout the night, notably on an epic "Sad Eyes". It was during "Last Mistake", when Zedek abandoned guitar for harmonica, that the enormity of Brokaw's contributions were on display, and the ending jam huddle with the rhythm section was worth of vintage Crazy Horse.
Thalia Zedek, of course, is the hyper magnetic center of things, from the Peter Bagge sticker on her guitar, to Those Songs: a testament of the long and winding road of life. What seem to some like dispatches from the edge of sanity always connected with me for, (if this makes sense), their innate hopefulness. At the end of the line, no matter what comes down, the fact remains that we have made it through, and we are here, now. Initially, Zedek's vocals seemed lost to all but the hardcore in the band's tornado, but her instructions to the sound crew paid dividends, and she was quickly up and riding the waves. Order was completely restored with a towering "Off To One Side", with the band, (sans drummer), communing during the three minute opening instrumental section, before Johnson comes in and all hell breaks loose, with Zedek leading the way. The combination of dirge and fury in the song totally encapsulated the night, as well as the band. "Bell" and "Fast Piss Blues" brought the proceedings home, and for an impromptu encore, they honored the request a fan shouted out earlier in the night, and unleashed a savage "Brand New Vein", perfectly capping the evening.
What's next is anyone's guess...Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw have carved out singular solo careers with her Via, and his Gambler's Ecstasy being their most recent releases. Hopefully enough attention will be paid to the reissue of 11:11 that Matador will proceed and honor the rest of their catalogue with the same gusto they bestowed upon Pavement. While they were never the best-selling artist on the label, they were always the band I most aesthetically identified with the label, and in the greatest sense, this night was proof that in some way, you can go home again.
(some words on Matador's recent reissue of their debut 11:11)
To tell their story is to tell mine...my entry way to this whole crazy punk adventure was through Patti Smith and Television back in the day, and with that as a frame of reference, it's easy to see why the light bulb went on when i first heard this album. It's so deeply embedded as to be impossible to parse at this point, joining the company of a select few records like Marquee Moon and Daydream Nation that rewired my DNA, and how i listen to music. When i'm asked for a description, all i've ever been able to come up with is: Thermonuclear Blues. Epic guitar flights, harrowing lyrical scenes-to me it's the whole package, capped off by a cover of the Rolling Stones "I've Got The Blues" that bears the same relationship as Husker Du's cover of "Eight Miles High" is to the Byrds original. Sadly, that cover is the missing link in what is a loving restoration by Team Matador, and if that hurdle is what stood in the way of this unlikely event happening, so be it. Fleshed out to a double LP vinyl with a savage recording of the band in their prime at the Vermonstress Festival, it's certainly worth a gander even if you had the original. The real triumph here is how they cut through the murk without cleaving the mystery. Drums are accentuated, intertwined guitar lines thrown into sharper relief. It's truly a case of falling in love again.
The joy is in the details, Thalia Zedek's gift for drama, bringing the righteous tumult of "Submerge" to a close with the line: "Waiting for the pillow that used to cradle your head", or the exquisite pacing of the last line of "Dead Molly": "Everything rolls...back...down...the...hill". "Brand New Vein" boasts the immortal "I taste the sweetness of life/and I lick off the knife". While it's easy to get sucked into the nightmare visions, it's the guitar work that brings you back. Twisting, churning guitar lines throughout, Zedek and Brokaw dueling and climbing mountains, ("Fast Piss Blues"), or paring it back, (soft chiming intro of "Bell", or the opening elegy of "Off To One Side"). Underpinning these sonic trips is the rhythm section of O'Brien and Johnson, by measures understated and titanic, as the occasion dictates. "Sad Eyes" was the song that initially hooked me, starting as a ballad, before departing with a solo just past the three minute mark that's pure transcendence. It's not the sprawling epic of most of these tracks, but in it's conciseness, might offer the most pure example of the band's beauty, and how four seemingly disparate people came together to become much more than the sum of its parts.