Monday, February 06, 2006

Low/His Name Is Alive/Death Vessel at the Black Cat, DC Feb. 4th

When my dad went to Catholic school, nuns would monitor the school dances making sure that dancers had "room for the Holy Spirit" between them. Depending on the nun, the Holy Spirit needed about 9 to 12 inches of air between the teens. At the Black Cat, there were several boy/girl couples with zero room for the Holy Spirit, their hands in each other's back pockets, pressed shoulder blade to shoulder blade (they were about the same height as well). I hadn't seen anything like it since I was a student-teacher and then only from 10th graders or younger.

It was just one part of an evening that included a search for religious allegory, audience divination, a personal crisis regarding my old Goth tendencies and ultimately some fine sad-core. It also included some of the usual things that make the Black Cat a less than ideal venue. Fortunately, I got to hang with Pitchperfect at a show with plenty to talk about.

I walked up the stairs to the main room as Death Vessel was performing, waiting for Pitchperfect to get cash from the ATM. From the back of the room, I saw that there was only one performer on stage with long dark hair and an acoustic guitar, singing in a clear strong alto. As we made our way to the front of the crowd, our eyes adjusted and we got a little more confused. Is that a boy or a girl up on stage?1 The voice was way up in the alto range. However, the figure on the stage was more boyish than girlish. After a couple more songs, we figured out the riddle and realized that Death Vessel is a man with an uncannily high voice - frankly a touch higher and clearer than Antony and the Johnsons. Some confusion would have been avoided if Death Vessel performed under his real name, Joel Thibodeau. But he has a remarkable voice and plays guitar well also. His brief set made for a good opener.

Wating for His Name Is Alive, Pitchperfect began scanning the crowd and provided me with color commentary that had me scratching my head for most of the night.

Pitchperfect: So, you know this is two religious bands in one night, Grettir.

Grettir: I have three CDs by His Name Is Alive. You mean that the His Name is HIS Name?2

P (Nods): Look at the crowd, no one's drinking around us.

G (Looking around, seeing empty hands): Well, the bar seemed busy.

P: No smokers either.

G (pointing to some smokers at 6 o'clock from them): There's two there.

There was a couple of smokers standing near one of those interlocked boy/girl things.

P: Just two?

G (pointing at the far side of the stage): I can see a plume of smoke over yonder.

P: That's my point. The air's clear enough for you to see that far.

At this point, my head was racing to decipher any old HNIA lyrics - a tough proposition after two beers and a frustrating day at the office. Had I been subjected to some strange religious brainwashing during my distant Goth phase?

G: Hey, I remember them covering Rainbow.3

His Name Is Alive came on stage with Warren Defever and five additional musicians including longtime singer Karin Oliver. Warren and the bass player started off seated, then gradually rose - starting with Cornfield then moving into new songs from Detrola. At first, it seemed a little odd to see them trading off instruments and playing with their backs to the audience, but I've since had flashbacks to old shows by Bedazzled records bands where this kind of vibe was considered ideal. Now, it just didn't seem as appealing. Somehow, the dense production of the old HNIA records wasn't making it into the performance. I was disappointed. Also, Warren seemed a little disoriented - using the same confusing Baltimore for Washington joke twice. 4

Pitchperfect and I moved to the back of the club for Low as the crowd was towering over her by now. I also think she was relieved to see more smokers and drinkers in the back.5 Thankfully, Low's soundman took over the board and the band sounded great, though a little quiet, from the back. At that point, Low was wonderfully themselves - slow, beautiful and occasionally loud. New bassist Matt Livingston blended right in with Mimi and Alan. Not much else for me to say, except that they were great.

I had asked Pitchperfect to see Low with me before she went to Deerhoof. Unfortunately, her Deerhoof experience shared a lot in common with the Low show. For some reason, folks go to the Black Cat to talk. Maybe there are heart-felt reconciliations between lovers, reunions between old friends and estranged family members making peace6, but can't these folks find someplace that doesn't charge a $14 cover fee to talk things over? I don't understand why someone would buy a ticket to see a band, then proceed to completely ignore that band while standing in the club.7 I guess no one knows who they're seeing. In fact, one guy left during Low's set shouting out "boring" as the door swung behind him. Dude, it's Low.

As we walked back to the car, Pitchperfect gave me the assignment to review the show. She was still trying to figure out the God connection. I was just tired - Low does make me both happy and sleepy.


1There's a good song by the Barbarians about this phenomenon.

2In fact, the name in question is Abraham Lincoln.

3HNIA covered the Dio/Blackmore song Man On The Silver Mountain on Home Is In Your Head. Then again Pat Boone once covered Holy Diver.

4Is someone writing stage banter for indie rock bands? Akron/Family used the same joke at Cafe Iota. Ya know, it doesn't really work at the Black Cat. That big white stone pointy thing you pass on 14th street named after George Washington? The building with the dome in the opposite direction from it? They ain't got those in Baltimore.

5As I later learned, Pitchperfect was only partly relieved to be at the back of the club. There was a guy wandering around the back with a whisky glass eyeing the ladies. So, being with the sinners at the back of the club can be less than ideal.

6No, Pitchperfect, it was not a prayer meeting.

7Pitchperfect later told me that she overheard a conversation about the band between a woman and her date. The woman said that she "likes Mimi because she has a beautiful voice and is also beautiful looking, but not too beautiful so that [she's] jealous of her." While neither Pitchperfect or I know the lady's escort from that evening, we are unanimous in our advice to him - Run away. Run away and never look back.