Show in a Van Down by the River, November 16
November 16th was chilly this year, as November 16ths in St. Louis tend to be. Rain was tentatively in the forecast, and a quick glance to the cloud-covered skies served only as confirmation of our local weather forecasters' suspicions. In an unassuming riverside field in North St. Louis's industrial district, a handful of disheveled punks crowded around a van -- a 1989 Ford Clubwagon, to be precise -- and a gas-powered generator. The impending rain was the sole subject of concerned conversation.
"Fuck it, we're doing the show anyway." Gus Theodorow, singer of local punk band Who Fucking Cares?, owner of Clubwagon and generator, and booker of hilarious shows-in-a-van-down-by-the-river, is unconcerned about Mother Nature's wrath. This show must go on.
In a move that would draw the knowing contempt of fictional motivational speaker Matt Foley, five St. Louis punk bands (WFC?, Shaved Women, Overdoser, Masculine Journey and Goat Bris) are preparing to play a show. Inside a van. Down by the river.
The hours that followed were surreal in their absurdity. The kind of fun had at this show simply shouldn't be allowed, and frankly isn't. Every car that pulled up drew the stares of everyone in attendance -- a group of 40 or so rowdy punks -- ready to beat feet at the first sight of the five-oh. Beer was consumed openly and competitively, fueling the anarchic fervor of the masses. Someone had dumped a bunch of couches nearby, and it wasn't long before the crowd had them in a pile, ablaze. The wind from the riverfront whipped through the field in such a way that it pushed the flames to the two and three story range, alleviating the night's briskness with face-meltingly high temperatures.
Did I mention the bands played inside the van? Of course I did, but it warrants repeating. Even the drums were within, making playing them a daunting task of bumped elbows and a lack of headroom (disclosure: this writer plays drums in Overdoser. In order to alleviate any conflict of interest, I'll simply encourage you not to check us out. We're awful, simply awful; don't waste your time.) The fact that people were rocking the vehicle back and forth, jumping on its roof and whipping it with chains didn't make anything easier.
Initially, the show was intended as a viking-style funeral for the aforementioned aging van, which had recently reached a state of obsoletion by way of replacement. Gus had the stated intention to light the van on fire and push it into the river, presumably sans VIN numbers, as soon as the last band was done playing. Midway into the night, however, a few things became all too clear. This was fun -- really fun. There is no overhead to play outside. No clubs to pay, no promoter bullshit. In a DIY punk setting this could be made to work. Most punk houses and DIY spaces generally have a countdown from the moment they start hosting shows to the moment the city demands they stop, and it never happens at a convenient time. Just ask recently-shuttered Cranky Yellow. Vans on the other hand are specifically designed to be mobile, and the Northside industrial area is vast enough to make for a hard-to-hit moving target.
At the end of the night, rather than sending it on its final ride to Valhalla, Gus got behind the wheel and drove home -- just as the raindrops began to fall on the dying embers of the couch fire. There will be more van shows, as soon as the weather warms up again. They will be virtually unadvertised, due to their illicit nature -- this is an "ask a punk" situation -- but they will occur, as this locals-only show was just too damn cool to not subject on some unsuspecting out-of-towners. Lets just hope the rain (and the engine) hold out long enough.
Oh Shit Moment: Couch fire grows wildly out of control, fast and is "tamed" by the drunken crowd by being whipped with a fifteen-foot long thickass chain.
Highlight: See above.
--Daniel Hill Vivian Girls/Widowspeak at the Billiken Club, September 14
New York City's Vivian Girls played three St. Louis shows this year on the heels of Share The Joy, a solid and unfairly overlooked third album. In the spring, the band played a semi-acoustic show at Vintage Vinyl, and an energetic set at the Firebird (effortlessly wiping the stage with headliners Black Lips). In September, it played the Billiken as part of a headlining tour. After a remarkably solid set from Brooklyn's Widowspeak. Vivian Girls played a long and varied set. The trio alternated between early crash-pop gems like "Wild Eyes" and "All The Time," and the more detailed Share The Joy material such as the six-plus-minute "The Other Girls" and girl-group pastiche "Take It As It Comes." The buzz-band hype now long gone, Vivian Girls has emerged as a band with experience and longevity. Oh Shit Moment: Widowspeak in general. A fairly new trio from Brooklyn by way of Tacoma, this band released one of the year's best debuts, and this was a welcome chance to see them at an early stage. Lead singer Molly Hamilton's woozy, surreal vocals have been compared to Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, but Widowspeak has developed its own unique approach, brimming with Morricone-ish reverbed guitar and moody, thoughtful songs. Set closer "Ghost Boy" started out as a whisper, slowly built to a crescendo, and then cut off cold, the weekday St. Louis crowd marveling at what we'd just seen.
Highlight of the Night: Vivian Girls' "The Other Girls." At six-plus minutes, it's not only the band's most ambitious song, but has served as the centerpiece of each local appearance.
Danny McClain's Memorial Show at Floating Laboratories, April 2
A pall lay over Floating Laboratories that night. People nodded at each other, wordlessly acknowledging their shared loss, the yawning chasm newly separating them from normalcy. Danny McClain's compatriots in life and music assembled to pay him tribute, and all gathered were alternating between somber silence, hysterical laughter and sudden tears. Stories were shared, and that reliable mistress alcohol eased their dissemination.
It seemed straightforward enough -- as a musician, he had musician friends, and they needed to say goodbye with sound -- but nothing could really prepare you for hearing and seeing their living threnodies. It was weeks removed from his passing, and while the shock hadn't (and in a sense, still hasn't), worn off, it had settled -- the sediment of denial and anger no longer clouding individual wells of grief.
Brain Transplant's strong suit has always been the ability to tastefully mold interesting soundscapes through the use of high volume and crafted noise. As a frequent collaborator, McClain often set the bar for improvisation before quickly obliterating it into ruins. Remaining a catalyst for several legendary sets, an undisputed force of vile improv was a result of the untouchable trio of McClain, Smentkowski and Stone. Grappling with an ever-too-real loss of one of its closest allies, Brain Transplant, in one of its most classic line-ups, performed in honor and homage to its late, great prince of the dark throne. For an amalgam of musicians who have known each other for this long, the ebb and flow between textural phrases and raging cacophony has now become second nature. Programming wizard Ajay Khanna's white noise crunch pitted against the broken electronics of Jeremy Melsha perfectly set the background for the unmatched showmanship of sax legend Dave Stone and axe-man Chris Smentkowski. As if harnessing the strength of their whole being, the quartet raged with grieving emotion, straining their souls through their instruments. And it was fucking loud. Through the darkness, Stone wielded his trademark baritone sax up and down as the blackened noise, raw and solemn, acted as catharsis for the electric eulogy. Clocking in at close to 30 minutes, the quartet delved further and further into the electric abyss, finding solace the only way its members know how.
Oh Shit Moment: The seven minute set from Obstacle Corpse, the solo project of Corydon Ronnau from Sissy Spacek. Using only a mic, a metal stew pot and recently emptied wine and beer bottles collected from the crowd, Ronnau broke the bottles and ground up the glass in his pot, wrenching incredible torrents of razor-sharp noise with no regard for the bleeding cuts on his hands.
Highlight of the Evening: In a fit of equal parts rage, sadness, and excitement, Smentkowski throws down his axe, creating swells of mournful feedback before swiftly breaking the neck with his foot.
--Diana Benanti and Josh Levi