Thee Oh Sees
The Blind Shake
Thursday, Oct. 10
The Chapel // Presented by (((folkYEAH!)))
Some concerts do more than facilitate a live performance by a given artist. Some shows exhibit a scene and maybe define a moment, simply by presenting a particular group of artists together, in an ideal setting, at their very best. Last night's performance at the Chapel -- the first of a sold-out, three-night residency that will begin these three bands' month-long national tour together -- was this kind of show. You knew from the start that it was a special night. And if you didn't, Thee Oh Sees and their hand-picked openers all played such unhinged, revelatory, and riotously fun rock 'n' roll that something -- we're not quite sure what -- seemed to change, or coalesce, or be proven, as a result.
Seeing rock music this raw and energetic bring a big, fairly diverse crowd together spoke for the power underground guitar music, and the people it draws, and San Francisco. It certainly said a great deal for these bands, only one of which is as anywhere close to as famous as it deserves to be, and for the kind of experience they provide, which, we're reassured after last night, is just as ecstatic and necessary now as it ever has been. As the sweaty masses poured out onto Valencia after Thee Oh Sees' encore, the instant community of a mosh pit dissipating into the midnight air, you had to wonder: Was that maybe one of the best rock 'n' roll shows ever? It certainly was one of the best that we've seen.
It began with OBN III's -- or, rather, with the sight of a monstrous man in Wranglers and long hair romping around the interior of the Chapel, falling down onstage and running into the already-boiling moshpit, yelling at people in the front row, on the floor, and then falling over again. Three guitarists onstage, plus bass and drums, and everyone up there looked about 16 years old, including the singer when you could see his face, which was not often. It was 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday in S.F. and this Austin band was playing like midnight Saturday, playing like it's the fucking headliner, playing like they're the Stooges in 1969, playing like no one has ever done this before and if they have, then never like this.
The music was straight late-midcentury Detroit, too, a bored-and-stroked version of the blues, rhythmic and deep and fast and careless. The lights strobed constantly, which gave the whole thing a vaguely Satanic feel. You couldn't understand the singer (whose name is Orville) at all, but from we could gather he seemed to give a fuck about absolutely nothing, and right then we loved him for that. "This one is about the drugs," he said before one song. And from then on out some jerk in the crowd shouted in between every song about wanting drugs, annoying Orville and everyone else. "God ruined a perfectly good asshole when he gave you teeth," Orville told the guy, and security came to haul him away, but Orville stopped them, saying "he's cool," and lets the guy stay, and then OBN III's mounted one last, gleeful assault on themselves and the audience and the notion that music should be polite, or reasonable, or anything but a release of the most anarchic, reckless core of the human animal. And then it was over.
Twenty minutes later, a trio of space aliens from Minneapolis -- bald dudes wearing matching black pullovers, with some vague logos made on them out of duct tape -- commenced a leaner assault, no less energetic but a bit more collected. One guitar, one baritone guitar, a fuckload of reverb, and a drummer who deserves an Olympic medal. This was the Blind Shake, a Minneapolis band that after nearly a decade of acclaim in the rock underground might finally now be on the verge of the recognition it deserves. The Blind Shake is at once spacey, primitive, futuristic, and brutal: a kind of backyard extraterrestrial minimal surf-punk party. The Blaha brothers Jim and Mike were battened down in front, leaning into their mics, focusing the music's long grooves -- until they spiked all the forward momentum altogether, kicking their legs and throwing their guitars skyward, just barely hanging on to them, with the noise at peak chaos, Jim leaning on the wah-wah pedal until all that came out was sizzling feedback.
Mike fell flat on his back a couple of times on purpose, and drummer Dave Roper was so pumped he could barely stand to sit on his drum throne in between songs. Many of these tunes were from the band's new album Key To A False Door: "Porto Alegre" is a Friday-night fistfight; "Red River Visionaries" a long march into doom. The penultimate song was a dirgey groove with no words, just one long demonstration of this band's skill at building tension, twisting the screws tighter and tighter and tighter, so that when it all explodes, when the feedback hits, you just want the tension so badly again.
The excitement in the room all night was for Thee Oh Sees, whose four members came on and assembled their weird and complex gear setup. Figurehead John Dwyer goofed around with the sound techs and friends in the front of the stage while he casually arranged gear, sipping a couple drinks, building his strange tower of amplifiers and Space Echo and P.A. speaker. He pulled out his clear plastic guitar like a sword, plugged it in, and played one stinging chord, causing the room -- which you could just feel had been watching him the whole time -- to erupt in cheers. The sound guy deferentially killed the (ridiculously loud) between-set music, but Dwyer protested, saying they weren't ready.
Finally, they were ready, and at 11:03 p.m. the band that flies the flag of freaky San Francisco rock all around the world began its performance, as it has done on so many San Francisco nights before. From then, on the Chapel was not an upscale Mission music venue and restaurant but a cauldron of wet, smelly, grinning, largely drunken humans slamming into each other, jumping skyward at the start of "Block of Ice" or "Enemy Destruct" or a half-dozen other songs, dancing (yes, dancing) amiably as Thee Oh Sees settle into their longer, groovier numbers, Thee Oh Sees being nowadays basically a jam band for people who think jam bands are too nice. Beer cans were thrown, the center of the crowd was a demolition derby of crowd-surfers and shoulder-slamming. Some intensely intoxicated small woman manhandled everyone in our corner of the front, nearly provoking a couple of slap-fights, but mostly the vibe was hot and happy. This Oh Sees show, like every Oh Sees show, was a dutch oven of chaos; but this one, the first of three sold-out nights, felt bigger, more important. It felt like an arrival, like a putting-on-notice of the world at large. This is not the old Eagle Tavern or Brick and Mortar -- this is a local band of national import holding court during the high concert season at one of its hometown's finest rooms, the whole bill a demonstration of its draw and influence and taste. And while Thee Oh Sees did their thing, the 16-year-olds in front went just as crazy as the dads on a dude-night in back and the twentysomething cool kids in the middle.
So maybe this is the thing, the big feeling of the night: Valencia may be a bougie food court now, San Francisco may be over as a freak magnet, rock 'n' roll may be dead as a mass commercial enterprise. But this was something the world needs, a feeling that is excellent and rare. Last night, Thee Oh Sees, and their openers, and the steamy humans inside the Chapel, were as alive as alive gets.
By the way: The show was being recorded. When the live album from this string of shows comes out, you want to own it. Trust us.
Also: As we mentioned, these three bands are playing tonight and Saturday at the Chapel, too. The shows are sold out, but try to go anyway.