Holy crap! What an audaciously grim way AMC’s Mad Men chose to celebrate Mother’s Day. I mean, Jesus. I almost cried, for real! But only almost, perhaps because it was no longer Mother’s Day when I actually got around to seeing it. One less turn of the screw, you know? And whyyyyyyy do you ask did I not watch it on Mother’s Day? Because I was instead at Bushwick BBQ mecca The Shop bearing witness to an inexorably rad show celebrating not mothers, but fathers. Biological fathers? Couldn’t tell ya. But forefathers? No doubt.
I’m referring of course to Philly-based proto-metal legends BANG, who released a series of albums back in the early 70s, gaining some small notoriety at the time, but being remembered fairly well to this day as one of the more worthwhile, if not absolutely essential, chapters in the saga of early American heavy rock. Well, they reunited in 2014, and are one of a gazillion incredible bands who will be appearing at next weekend’s Psycho California fest, but before heading out west they stopped in little old Bushwick to rip it up with the support of fellow Philadelphians Ruby the Hatchet, as well as local favorites Blackout and Mirror Queen.
I went to it and now I will talk about it.
Bent Unit diehards will immediately recall that I quite recently reviewed Mirror Queen’s latest LP, Scaffolds of the Sky, and that I liked it! So I was happy to hear them open with a couple of highlights from the new album, personal favorite “Vagabond” as well as the rollicking title track which opens the album. While the record is a full-length indication of deft songwriting, MQ’s bread-and-butter consists in the double-lead guitar work and back-and-forth soloing between axemen Kenny Sehgal and Phillipe Ortanez, a la such heyday titans as Blue Oyster Cult, UFO, and Thin Lizzy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their live show, which is little short of dominated by expert guitar work.
I was lucky enough to get a personal dedication towards the end of the set, and they closed things out with an astonishingly on-point cover of “Phantom of the Opera”, from the first Iron Maiden album. What more can a guy ask for?
Brooklyn’s own Blackout (who I also reviewed not so long ago) is also going to be heading out west this coming weekend for Psycho CA, appearing at the fest on 5/15, and then heading up the coast for 6 dates in Cali and Oregon with psych rockers Slow Season. Well guys, don’t enjoy the beautiful weather and friendly vibes too much, ‘cuz sticky, stinky, New York summer will be here when you return, ready to embrace you with loving arms made out of boiling trash.
Anyway, they’re without a doubt one of the “bands to watch” as far as Brooklyn heaviness is concerned, playing a heavy-as-hell, slow-as-shit, sludgy kind of doom that is fresh and original despite being ostensibly rooted in unwavering worship of Black Sabbath and The Melvins. I think the sense of originality comes from their personalities. The 2-dudes-and-a-babe from Blackout don’t hide themselves behind the proverbial doom shroud, but are unashamed to be real people, and more importantly, fun people. Come to the show to see them drop plundering riffage; stay to do tequila shots with them after their set is over.
Ruby the Hatchet
Ruby the Hatchet, heavy-psych sorcerers from Philly, seem to be getting a good amount of buzz these days, and for good reason. They released a great album called Valley of the Snakes via Tee Pee Records back in February. I didn’t find time to review it, but that’s not because I didn’t like it. It’s because I’m a lazy ass. However if you ever want to come over and face me in Tetris or Donkey Kong Country, well then we can redefine exactly what qualifies as “time spent worthwhile”.
It was my first time seeing them live, and I loved their set. It began with little warning, as if a mere continuation of their line check, but before you knew it they had created an atmosphere which sustained for the remainder of their performance. And sure, Jillian Taylor’s killer voice, and the rest of the band’s ability to play slow and heavy, significantly contribute to that ambiance, but what really sets this band apart is harmony. They’ve only got a single guitarist, but Sean Hur’s organ works jumps effortlessly from big swirly chords to lead work that continuously twines in and out of the guitar leads, lending as much harmony to the band’s sound as texture. At the same time, drummer Owen Stuart brings in periodic support on backup vocals, providing an earthy foil to Taylor’s clean leads. It’s all the more impressive when a heavy band can pull this kind of stuff off in a live setting, and for that I gotta give these guys some serious kudos.
Now, I have to admit, I had a moment of uncertainty in the time between Ruby’s set and Bang’s. I mean, for a group of guys like this, touted as “legends” or “originators” or whatever else, there’s a lot at stake when you take the stage at the top of a bill like this. I mean, you’re following bands that are just hitting their stride, that show a huge amount of potential but are still fighting to prove themselves with every live set, rather than resting on any laurels. Now that’s a band that’s dangerous, in terms of how good their live show can be, and how genuinely and earnestly they can lay into their instruments. And here you are, older than my parents, built on a catalogue that’s been inactive for 40 years, taking the stage and hoping you can still make kids dance. Now, trust me, if any reader thinks I mean to be at all disrespectful here, they’ve got me all wrong. I’m just saying it’s a precarious situation, and as much as any of us want to root for the continued relevance of a band like BANG, it would be naive to ignore the possibility that, 40 years later, they simply don’t hold up to what’s new.
Luckily, it didn’t take long for BANG to quell my doubts. The rocked in any and all possible meanings of the word, and their whole set breathed an energy into the venue which hadn’t been there before. Simply put, it was fun. The band was clearly having a blast, and in my opinion that’s the most effective way to convey the sentiment that they have absolutely nothing to prove. As much credit as they get for their contributions to what would become heavy metal, metal itself was a concept that didn’t exist when this band formed, so there was never any obligation to wear only black, to avoid major sixths, to play or look or sound or think in any way prescribed to them by decades of tradition, which in many cases merely means decades of fashion. They don’t worship the dark lord, but they certainly might worship the Beatles.
For BANG, this level of candour, this down-to-earthness, this freedom from all of the tropes which they may have once help to get rolling, all of this translated into a wonderful performance, and a reminder of what’s best about music.
Also, more great harmonies from these guys. Harmony, man…