Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Black Angels, LA Witch, and Bev Davies at the Commodore: of seats and sounds

The Black Angels by bev davies, not to be reused without permission 

This will quickly become about last night's show at the Commodore, and about the whole PHO/ seats vs. standing thing that is a current topic. But I need to set a couple things up first. 

The thing about going to concerts for me: I don't go to watch the band. I go to listen to the music, played live and loud. Often - with the right types of music - that works way better if your eyes are closed.   

I mean, sometimes I do watch the band. There are performers who are riveting, who have crazy antics, or whose style of performance is so muscular and powerful that you gotta see it in order to really participate - or whose music just isn't "about" sitting there listening intently. When I went to see the Cramps, my eyes were OPEN. Jello Biafra? Open! When the Spitfires, Bishops Green, and DOA take it to the stage at the Rickshaw, I'll be as close as I can get to the stage, eyes wide open there, too. 

You may also take comfort that, although I have not tried to mosh since the last time I saw the Circle Jerks at the Commodore, maybe ten years ago - my last lame mosh ever was to "Coup D'Etat" - I do that with my eyes open, too. A 300lb dude moshing with his eyes closed would not be safe for anyone. 

I don't even attempt stage diving. 

Mostly I go to listen. If a band is ABOUT the music - not the performance or the speechifying or the stage show or whatnot, but about rich, textured sound, as was the case with both LA Witch and the Black Angels at the Commodore last night - I LOVE sitting with my eyes closed and zoning out, trippin' on the sound and the shapes it makes in my mind. Maybe it's a holdover from my psychedelic youth, where I would put on headphones and have the music translate instantaneously into rich, moving, multicoloured machinery behind my closed eyelids, but almost every concert I go to where the band is ABOUT the music, I spend at least half of it with my eyes shut, even if I'm stone cold sober. 

Sometimes there's even a conflict in me between impulses. It's hard enough to close your eyes on a performer. It feels like it might seem rude, and I've even gotten heat from a bouncer, when I was deep in a music-induced altered state during a Wolves in the Throne Room show at the Venue, for "sleeping" during the show - he grabbed my shoulder and said "don't sleep," and I immediately yelled in fury at him, "It's called listening, you jackass!" or something like that. Lucky I didn't get removed! 

But not all bands make it that EASY to shut your eyes. When I saw Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the Liquid Room in Tokyo about 20 years ago, given their haunting, moody, richly-layered music, that's a show I would have LOVED to experience with my eyes shut, but a big part of the show was the films they were projecting behind the screen, using images to compensate for the lack of lyrics. The film component was vastly more interesting to watch than the band. Plus the Liquid Room was mostly a big, hard dance floor - I certainly never sat down the times I went there, though there might have been seats, Commodore-like, around the periphery; I don't recall. In any event, closing your eyes and listening makes a LOT more sense if you are sitting down, and fits with the purpose of closing your eyes: it eliminates distractions, so you can focus on the music. 

So here: say what you will about how fucking WEIRD it was to arrive at the Commodore and see the dancefloor filled with folding chairs - 

Photo by Allan MacInnis

- but this is a show I would have wanted to sit down for ANYHOW, y'see? If this gig had happened pre-COVID, I would either have a) begrudgingly stood and tried to dance with  my eyes closed without colliding into anyone (which I have sometimes done quite successfully), only to find myself longing more and more for a seat after three hours' worth of standing; OR I would have begrudgingly found a seat at the peripheries and tried to enjoy the music, even though sonically I was not ideally situated (who wants to listen to a concert when they are off to one side? You want to be front and centre, exactly in the same relationship to the stage as you would be to your home stereo, no? That's me, anyhow). Because of COVID, last night, I got to listen to TWO bands that are very rewarding to listen to with your eyes closed, while being seated IN THE CENTRE AISLE, six rows back on the left. It was a good enough experience that if we still have this, uh, "seat bullshit," if I may call it that, the next time I see a show at the Commodore, depending on what band I'm seeing, that might just be where I head. 

That said, the next band I hope to see at the Commodore is the Circle Jerks, so...

...anyhow, about the music last night. LA Witch was visually more interesting - light show excepted - to watch than the Black Angels. The bassist alone had more onstage charisma than any of the Black Angels (except maybe the drummer). It was very interesting to see the discrepancy between members' self-expression - because in her tight short-shorts, with a strap falling off her shoulder, and a fair bit more makeup (I think) than her bandmates, Irita Pai had her "sexy levels" set way higher than her bandmates; she looked - how can I put this without seeming lecherous or sexist? - like she was, for example, at a club on Granville Street - which, uh, she was, kinda - whereas the guitarists looked kinda like they were out for a swanky business affair and the drummer looked like she was at the gym. I mean, I'm SORRY to be writing about female musicians in terms of how they look here, right? But the point is, the bassist alone, I could watch for hours; she has charisma. There was CONFLICT in me between the desire to watch her, and the desire to shut my eyes, as opposed to the Black Angels, who were completely visually un-exciting (lightshow excepted) and who generated no conflict whatsoever. (I am sure they have fans who disagree but if I saw the Black Angels walking through the mall I would think nothing of it). 

LA Witch by bev davies, not to be used without permission 

If LA Witch were easier to close your eyes and listen to than the Black Angels - they were nowhere near as hooky or danceable, or at least they did not make ME want to stand up and dance. They ARE a rock band, and there WERE hooks, but mostly the stuff I found most interesting and enjoyable about their music was about tone, texture, mood, and the weird stuff hanging at the peripheries of the soundscape of their music. I didn't even really notice their songs so much as the sounds they generated; like, eyes closed - and only with my eyes closed; the effect was lost when I opened them - I heard all these weird phantom vocals in the back of my head, ghostly female whooos and even deep masculine growls and such that had me looking at the band to see if anyone onstage was making them. It was like the weird swirling stuff you sometimes could hear at a Mission of Burma show, where there actually WAS a member you couldn't see, doing sonic manipulations to the sound. Some of the phantom male stuff, mind you, might be down to an obnoxious drunk off to my left, who yelled way louder than was necessary throughout some of the set - I mean, maybe he presumed to sing along, too? But there were definitely some auditory hallucinations. There were also some very interesting, shimmery textures generated, and striking temporal mindfucks where the band deliberately completely changed gears at midpoint in a song, a very disorienting downshift in tempo that brought back a staggering moment at an Under the Volcano a long time ago when a dub reggae band did the same thing (I've only ever heard dub do that so dramatically before, I think). It's the feeling of powerful drugs kicking in, but without the powerful drugs: suddenly the music CHANGES and you're swimming in a totally altered, unfamiliar sound-world, during the same tune. There were only a couple of moments like that, but they were what sold me on the idea of buying their newest CD - a mere $10 at the merch table, which, btw, is now moved across the venue to the far side, opposite where it used to be. 

I don't know LA Witch well at all, in fact - I'd tried to interview them once before (which didn't happen, due to technical problems), but I don't have their records and I haven't seen them before. Erik Iversen, another local photographer, not present last night, tells me on Facebook that their label, Suicide Squeeze, has other great stuff, too - especially Death Valley Girls, but also the Coathangers (one helluva name for a female band). All of it bears investigating. 

Before and between bands, I was posting about all this on Facebook, interacting with friends about the whole "seats" phenom. I bonded with a fellow big guy about how those rickety folding seats are kind of terrifying for people of our girth to sit in, since it is vastly too easy to imagine them collapsing under our weight (yes, folks, we fat people DO have that as a life experience to contend with; it's only happened a couple of times to me, but it sure is memorable when it does). Some people commented that the seats were "a load of bullshit," since they wouldn't be allowed to go to the front, but the thing is: YOU COULD go to the front, as long as you were SITTING in the front and committed to staying there. Unlike, say, my usual experience at the Rickshaw, which is perfectly designed for people who want to stand up at the front for SOME songs then go back to the back and sit for others, this new weird seating thing requires you to sort of just SIT WHEN YOU WANT TO SIT, and stand when you want to stand, WITHOUT mingling. If discouraging movement through the venue was the point of the PHO directive, then it works. If forcing people to stand a slight distance from each other was the point of the PHO directive, it also works - because you can't stand too close to someone when there is a fucking CHAIR in between you! But no one discouraged standing, as long as you stood at your seat; I saw little overt policing other than a few bouncers trying early on to make sure no one stood in the aisles, which quickly became impossible, so it became about making sure no one BLOCKED the aisles. 

It actually brought me back to Japan a bit, in fact, where people are generally more reserved, and I truly began to dig the seated experience; since no one stood for LA Witch, I began to wonder if people were going to stand up at all. The only person I saw stand up for LA Witch, in fact, was Bev herself, when she was taking the photograph above! 

bev davies shooting LA Witch, by Allan MacInnis

However, I quickly discovered that people were MORE than willing to stand; they just needed more danceable, hooky music to make them WANNA stand, which is exactly what they did when the Black Angels came on - the typical slow wave of people standing up front, with a few curmudgeonly types like me holding out for awhile. Eventually, I would imagine everyone was standing in front of their seats (or in the aisle); even I got up and swayed around a bit. More irritating from an audience perspective, for me, than the seats that kept the people ahead of and in back of me a distance away, was that the dance floor at the Commodore has become surprisingly sticky. Where I was, at least, it was like there had been a Coca-Cola convention that afternoon and they'd forgotten to mop - so I'd be swaying a little to the music, trying to get into it, and I'd try to lift my foot and the sole of my shoe wouldn't move and I'd nearly lose my balance. I don't remember it being that bad before! Eventually I just sat down again and hoped the girl who had taken the aisle space to my right, who bumped into me a dozen times during her own dancing, didn't manage to get me in the eye with her purse. 

She didn't. 

There is other stuff I could get into that I'm gonna make short work of - like mentioning that it was kind of weird to see two bands in a row with the drummer at the periphery, LA Witch's drummer to the right (from my POV, not the stage) and the Black Angels' to the left, which had a predictable affect on my inner experience; usually - in front of my stereo - I experience the drums happening right in the centre of whatever shape the music is making, which makes sense because live, drums are usually center stage; here, the drums seemed to be at one side or the other of the music, sonically as well as visually. Maybe that was subjective, though? 

I also have to add, here, that I was REALLY impressed by the Commodore's staff, who made it really, really fast and easy for us to get into the venue, get to our seats, and stay safe. I am sure they had some hassles during the night, but I witnessed NONE of them. Sticky floor outside, last night was as fun a night out as I've had in a long time, live-music wise (not quite as fun as that Betty Bathory show but still). And it was amusingly weird to see Bev tentatively make her way across a row of seated people to stand in the centre aisle and shoot, which is simply never a circumstance I've seen her in before; she's either always standing among fellow standers or in a photographers' pit, which there was not one of last night. (In fact the crossing over wasn't too weird, she tells me, but "standing in front of seated people was strange.")

I think we're all a bit out of practice at this, not sure what the rules are, and that it may take some time to get comfortable with these changes. There's not a lot of consistency between venues, that I'm seeing, either. While Mo is being forced to postpone shows and reduce his capacity so he can put in seats, there was no effort to change the floor of the Railway the other night - maybe because their dance floor is so tiny? The seats at the Commodore turned out, after the initial weirdness, to be welcome by my old, fat ass, but they sure won't be when it comes time for the Circle Jerks, you know? DOA at the Rickshaw with chairs will be fucking weird indeed, too. I am deeply skeptical that the amount of social distancing and "control" that the chairs imposed on the pit will be worth the harm it does to venue operators - and I feel really bad for Mo that he took on good faith that he would be allowed to operate at capacity, then had this chair bullshit rob him of, what was it, 25% of his capacity? 

And sorry, folks, but the chairs will also mean a net loss of FUN for people who want to mosh, or to lose themselves in a sweaty press of flesh, at a show where you DON'T just want to sit down and listen...

...but speaking just for myself, last night, sitting down and listening was EXACTLY what I wanted to do. And to say hi to Bev, who I haven't seen at a show since... shit, I dunno. I didn't mention her in my "What were you doing when the world ended" post when COVID hit, where I recorded some of the last concerts I saw before the pandemic... Bev, what was the last show we were at together? Comment if you remember...! 

Favourite misheard lyrics of the night came from a Black Angels song: "She had six arms and most of her eyes." In fact, it's "Lucifer eyes," though the rest is right - it's from their song, "Call to Arms," which I did not know. I got the chorus wrong, too - the correct lyric is "don't play with guns," but I somehow heard, "Don't paint your cranium." 

I like my versions better. 

Black Angels by Allan MacInnis. 

ALL BAD PHOTOS BELOW ARE BY ALLAN MACINNIS. All good photos, above, are by Bev! 

(My doctor tells me I gotta quit alcohol because of the mouth cancer. Luckily I don't mind the taste of this stuff - it's no worse than regular Bud, and two-for-two, it's the only de-alcoholized beer that I've found at a venue!)


Doug said...

Could those "mystery sounds" have been loops triggered by the mellotron the band had on stage? Nearest to drummer/bassist...

Allan MacInnis said...

Could have been, I guess! I don't really know.