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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thee Oh Sees, Sic Alps, Ty Segall, and the Sandwitches Give a Primer on S.F. Rock

Posted By on Thu, Feb 10, 2011 at 7:58 AM

Sic Alps at Great American Music Hall last night.
  • Sic Alps at Great American Music Hall last night.
Thee Oh Sees
Sic Alps
Ty Segall
The Sandwitches
February 9, 2011
@ Great American Music Hall

Better than: Train.

If you're looking for a primer on the state of independent rock in San Francisco in 2011, you could hardly do better than last night's lineup at Great American Music Hall. There, the excellent local indie music blog The Bay Bridged presented a sampling of some of the city's best bands: garage kings Thee Oh Sees, sludge-pop veterans Sic Alps, grunge wunderkind Ty Segall, and wispy folk-rockers the Sandwitches

These groups play regularly around the city, and often share bills. But seeing them packed into one show, in such a historic and elegant venue, and as a benefit for the Coalition on Homelessness, was a rare treat. The night could be seen as a showcase for what has become nationally known as a kind of fertile crescent for bare-bones rock 'n' roll. More importantly, though, it was just a great night of live music.

The Sandwitches
  • The Sandwitches
I arrived near the end of the Sandwitches' opening set, and found the three ladies playing to a polite but unthrilled crowd. Their vocal-heavy, mellow songs never raised the energy level to the heights it would reach later in the night, which was expected. But the Sandwitches' music seems better suited to smaller crowds and more intimate venues (such as Amnesia) than the wide stage and balconied heights of Great American. It was difficult last night to hear their songs' scattered elements -- a scratch of guitar chord here, a spacious vocal harmony there -- come together as intended, despite the performers' obvious enthusiasm.

Ty Segall
  • Ty Segall
The contrast was made all the more clear when Ty Segall and his three band members took the stage, coralling a thick set of youngish fans toward the front and center with furious scuzz-pop. Segall recently added a second guitarist to his live band (at least, this was the first time I've seen him with such a setup), and last night demonstrated the reason for this. Having another guy bang out the songs' basic chords left Segall free to detonate fuzzy freak-outs on his own six-string, and shake his body with all the abandon this loose, physical music demands. The young-looking USF grad (and former KUSF DJ) at the head of this outfit has never needed any one else's presence to howl and scream through his bluesy madman vocals -- he used to perform as a one-man band. But last night, none of Segall's onstage antics subtracted from the Sabbath-caliber impact of his newer songs. With his face hidden behind a thick mop of reddish-blonde hair, Segall came off almost like a young Cobain, inciting the front end of the crowd into a rabid pogo-pit with crowd favorite "Girlfriend" and other bangers from last year's excellent Melted.

Sic Alps
  • Sic Alps
After the chaotic energy of Segall, and the obvious enthusiasm the crowd had for his band, it was inevitable that Sic Alps would take things down a notch. Inveterate members of the S.F. indie-rock scene, the three guys in Sic Alps deal in a languid, distressed brand of psych-pop, slower and more challenging than the hyperactive mess of Segall or Thee Oh Sees. Sic Alps' January-released sophomore album, Napa Asylum, is a double-length collection of disparate, disturbing folk and rock songs, made all the more unsettling by frontman Mike Donovan's pervasive use of vocal echo. He recreated that effect onstage last night, with his voice sounding like the distant ramblings of some straightjacketed prisoner. 

With just two guitars, effects, and drums, Sic Alps sonic palette is severely limited, and its preference for slackery midtempo jaunts bored a few people I spoke with. But there's something striking about Sic Alps' use of color, texture, and atmosphere in songs like "Trip Train" and "Do You Want To Give $$," instead of the sheer visceral thrill and dynamic changes upon which Segall and Thee Oh Sees rely. (Though Napa standout "Soil" is all visceral thrill -- and could have used more heft onstage.) Sic Alps' set felt longer and more wearing than others' last night, but it gave the show -- and gives the local rock cohort to which the band belongs -- a compelling emotional depth that would otherwise be lacking.

Thee Oh Sees
  • Thee Oh Sees
It was immediately clear why Thee Oh Sees topped last night's bill. The band yanked the attention of what had by then become a quite full room. As John Dwyer, Thee Oh Sees' skinny, tattoo-covered, powder keg of a frontman explained, his band had just left recording sessions for its next album -- you can pretty much count on Thee Oh Sees to deliver at least one per year -- and was ready to throw down. So throw down it did, and the crowd responded feverishly. Sounding like a gleefully wicked, cracked mirror on the classic Nuggets garage-rock style, the band tore through songs like "Enemy Destruct," "I Was Denied," and "Block of Ice," as the night's younguns crowd-surfed and slammed into each other up front. Most of the songs sounded pretty similar, but the band's energy onstage kept the attention level high until the very end, when the back of the crowd started to break away. (But even at the close of the show, after midnight, an encore was demanded -- and supplied.) 

Thee Oh Sees
  • Thee Oh Sees
Dwyer, the always-compelling frontman, complained in between songs that he'd broken his shoes, and later threw one into the crowd, where it was promptly caught. When a technical difficulty kept him from playing his part, the redhead -- who was mostly unhinged in his typically bendy, rabid physical style -- showed his experience: Dwyer caught his members' attention, stopped them mid-breakdown, then counted out the beat and fired right back into the climax of the song. They don't let hiccups ruin the action in these parts.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: I claimed Segall's Melted as one of my 10 favorite albums of last year, and had similar praise for "Girlfriend," its indelible first single.

Coaltion on Musicianness?: Ramshackle gear colors a lot of these groups' sounds, but much of the equipment onstage last night seemed to be barely hanging on to functionality. And will someone please buy Sic Alps a new drum crash? The one in use last night looked like a piece of rotten fruit after the bugs have gotten to it.

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