Bottom of the Hill
August 18, 2011
Better than: Getting seasick.
Wooden Shjips is an excellent band name in many ways, but the best way may be this: It is impossible to watch the four members of this once-S.F.-based psych-rock outfit play without feeling like they are transporting you on a journey. Whether this is a trip through the unopened doors of perception, distant galaxies, bygone decades of fuzzy West Coast guitar music, or just endless canyons of riffage depends on the circumstance, your imagination, and the intoxicating substances involved.
But as repetitive as Wooden Shjips minimalist workouts are -- and boy are they repetitive -- the cycles usually feel like they're leading somewhere. Last night, the trip was free: Sailor Jerry rum covered the door charge at Bottom of the Hill, even gave out free drinks for getting your picture taken, and the place filled up with mostly young fashionable rock kids. Which was a little surprising, because the members of Wooden Shjips aren't very young, and in the four or so years they've been a band, they've never been especially fashionable. Yet the audience treated the musicians -- and especially vocalist and guitarist Ripley Johnson -- with all the respect of hardened seamen post-circumnavigation. And with a possessed demeanor, gray flashes shooting out of his beard, and long, stringy hair, Johnson especially fit the part.
He steered the ship with a gleaming white plastic guitar called an "Airline," whose three pickups and array of knobs and switches gave it a look not unlike a cockpit. With the bass and drums locked into a piston-like pulse, thrusting the ship forward, Johnson was free to embellish the journey. His riffs and solos -- heavily processed with various delay, fuzz, and wah-wah pedals -- speckled the band's insistent rhythms like auroras and shooting stars in the passing night sky. The most vivid performances were of songs from the band's excellent upcoming album West, like "Home," and "Lazy Bones," whose straightforward chord progressions easily swelled into ethereal soundscapes when cast into the flickering video projections of the room.
Much of Johnson's solos seemed improvised, extended howls aiming to convey an overall feeling rather than any discernible melodic statement. They sounded like a rocket take-off on perpetual repeat, a series of slow, beautiful explosions at the front of the stage. The other instruments, including the spare organ notes of Nash Whalen, served as framing for the guitar playing. This arrangement gave the music a satisfying simplicity: When it's easy to tell where the ship is headed, you have no qualms about hopping aboard for a ride.
Best crowd reaction: After inhaling some journey-intensifying substances early on, two girls by the side of the stage simply head-banged in slow-mo and played air guitar through the whole set.
Best string change ever: I know I gushed about Tornado Rider's frontman changing a broken cello string while rapping a few weeks ago. And that was cool. But last night, when Johnson broke a string mid-song, he grabbed a new package, threw all the unneeded strings on the floor, ripped the broken one off, and threw the new one on. All of this happened in the course of about two minutes, while the band kept playing. He just tuned up the string and finished the song! That's badass, people.
And a cup of rum: After its first song, the band was presented with sizeable plastic cups of rum courtesy, we assume, of Sailor Jerry. Johnson took a swig of his and then asked nonchalantly if anyone would like some. We were just wondering if he was serious when he handed the cup to the guy behind us.
Opener: Night Beats, a three-piece from Seattle, got the room shaking with caustic blues-punk and face-melting -- if somewhat less transcendent -- guitar soloing. Guitarist/singer Lee Blackwell played with max reverb on his Fender, such that each swipe across the strings felt like shards of a broken mirror were being poured into your ear. But while many bands encase their songs in reverb, his staccato playing fueled the band's fast-paced rockers with an unusual twitchiness. And any band that brings out a sax player to close with a feedback-scorched cover of the Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction" is okay by us.