Sept. 24, 2011
Better than: Holing up in a cheap motel with a fifth of Old Crow and a shotgun.
San Francisco hometown heroes Two Gallants wrapped up a massive summer tour that took the duo all the way to Madrid by playing back-to-back nights at the Independent this weekend. The venue was packed on Saturday with a rapt audience eager to hear anything guitarist Adam Stephens and drummer Tyson Vogel were willing to give them.
After all, it had been a long time. This was only the band's second local performance after a three-year hiatus, during which Stephens suffered through a pair of freak traffic accidents, first being run off the road by a reckless driver while biking in the Mission last summer, then a few months later flipping his van in Wyoming on a solo tour, dislocating his shoulder and cracking a rib -- all without health insurance, of course. The childhood pals thought they needed a break from each other, but the gods had other ideas. Convalescence led to reignition of a lifelong friendship, an album's worth of new songs (the group gets back in the studio this week), and an infectious joie de vivre coming from the stage that belied Stephens' dark lyrics.
The appeal of Two Gallants runs deep. There's the massive sound the pair gets from just an electric guitar and drums -- and sometimes only an acoustic six-string and harmonica. Stephens is a finger-picking beast in the style of early 20th Century blues masters. Vogel matches his partner's roar with a percussive style that's less groovy backbeat than jazz-bent punctuation of the blustery piano school of Thelonious Monk or Cecil Taylor. And yet, this is a fundamentally a folk-rock group. Maybe post-folk, post-rock is a better way to go, or folk-punk, post-grunge, let's say. The duo's arty quirks must stem from growing up in San Francisco, and its vroom-vroom is clearly indebted to Seattle, circa 1989, a year in which many of Saturday's audience members were still rattling their cribs.
On recordings, Stephens often comes across like any other impassioned folkie of the garrulous Dylan school of poetics, but at this show, his vocals seemed more like desperate wailing, just shy of hysterical, Appalachia meets Twin Peaks. There was a commanding presence to his singing, an urgency that compelled attention. He had let his beard grow long since the first post-hiatus show last spring, and so perhaps he was working a kind of leprechaun magic. The spotlights sprinkled stardust on our heads as songs both old and new asked us to push forward in almost Beckettian terms -- "I can't go on, I'll go on" -- even when, as Stephens sang, we want to "run to the river and leap."
Witness the drunk waltz "Nothing to You," where nearly everyone shouted along to the outro refrain: "And it's down by the riverside/ Wasting away!" Collective despair is a lot more fun than holing up in a cheap motel with a fifth of Old Crow and a shotgun. Two Gallants implied as much with the intertwining of rhythms on their heaviest tunes and the luminous weave of vocal harmonies on the ballads, like the praise song, "Seems Like Home to Me." Though the new arrangement of this title at the show withheld the drums from the recorded version (like an awful sweet tease), the quiet guitar and dual vocals were pure uplift -- a poignant homecoming from a band too long gone.
Personal bias: This band's sound is the perfect marriage of my more recent Americana fetish and lifelong love of raw guitar.
Audience note: A lot of pretty girls on the floor who honestly were unfamiliar with the term grunge.
Favorite all-time Two Gallants line: "And the lost clause of words walks away with my nerves 'cause I'm gay as a choir boy for you." (From "Nothing to You")