Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014
Better than: Spending the night in jail.
"We were both born and raised a few blocks from here," said Two Gallants' Tyson Vogel between songs at the Independent last night. The club is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a run of shows this week, and the homegrown hard-roots-rock duo seemed especially pleased to be headlining one (which, like the others, was sold-out). The Sunday night energy was high, and at the start of the band's encore, Vogel noted that the city had been going through a lot of "upheaval and change" lately.
"It's important to keep S.F. what you want it to be," he said, with a note of sadness in his voice -- and then Two Gallants tiptoed into one of their most beloved songs, "Steady Rollin'." The tale of wandering and murder is a strange kind of hit, but then Two Gallants' specialize in sepia-tinted anguish. The crowd knew all the words and sang them loudly -- seeming relieved after a set that included new material the band has been recording. Adam Stephens sang the refrain, "I come from the old time baby," but last night, in the echoes of Vogel's comments, it was easy to mishear as "I come from the old town, baby" -- a version of San Francisco that fostered this ragged, unlikely success of a band and that increasingly doesn't exist.
Sentimentalities aside, Stephens and Vogel sounded as strong as ever -- utterly in control of a volatile mix of crystalline folk, blazing hard rock, and old-time blues. Vogel's drum sticks blurred as they flew from his main kit back to a timpani, and he traded them for other implements often. At one point, he even solicited an empty beer bottle from the audience to bang on. He's so voracious a drummer that he sometimes seems to be leading the band.
But Two Gallants wouldn't be Two Gallants without Stephens' exquisite wail -- a high, screechy tone ideally suited to conveying the loss and emptiness and doomed romance in his songs. He worked himself up into fits last night, sounding almost hoarse on, say, "Las Cruces Jail," and then returning to full, warm tones in a quiet song afterward, having done apparently no damage. Sometimes his singing got lost under the roar of his guitars -- having only two people in a band allows each to make a tremendous amount of noise -- but the various axes sounded so good we almost didn't mind.
The road to obscurity is paved with two-man blues rock duos, and the best one -- Jack White's -- is long gone. Watching Two Gallants last night, you got a sense of why this group has persisted on its own respectable level of success: There are no gimmicks. There is no ironic layer to Two Gallants. It is simply two men playing hard, sad music with all the energy and grit they can muster, and with nothing else to muddle their respective agilities, nothing to get in the way of the starkness of the stories their songs tell. In another context, those stories would seem fantastical, even outrageous -- and sometimes Stephens' death/jail/whiskey lyrics can come off as overwrought even in the fever of a live show. Mostly, though, you buy the anguish in Two Gallants songs -- there's plenty of firepower to convince you.