BY IAN HRABE
Before walking into the Jackpot last night, I passed a guy with a big beard, a skullcap, a flannel shirt open over a dirty white t-shirt and a broken arm, and I tensed up because I thought the guy was gonna ask me for a dollar or a cigarette harass me when I refused. When the Fresh & Onlys took the stage later, I realized that this guy is the lead singer. And I have a revelation: This neo-garage rock thing that has become THEE "it" genre is the new grunge.
Not that I'm saying that with any derision, because honestly, a lot of these bands are excellent. It's just very obvious that indie-rock came to a road block and brought itself back to ground level, to the base elements of short, catchy tunes filtered through layers of distortion.
Despite all of this, these bands are all pretty damn eclectic. Both The Fresh & Onlys and Thee Oh Sees are from San Francisco and both have incorporated a bit of the psychedelic pop made famous by their home city. There's something woozy about their tunes that's different from bands in the other garage-pop revival scene in Memphis.
Local dudes Bandit Teeth started off the night with yes, some noisy indie-rock. The majority of the set was made up of new songs, and for the first time these guys sounded like a real unit rather than a sum of their parts. They still switch instruments a few times during the set and trade off vocals. Brad Shanks has toned down the trademark squealing howl he utilized in Blood on the Wall, which never quite seemed to fit with Bandit Teeth, but that's just one improvement. The new songs sounded raw and totally fucking alive, as opposed to the toiled-over quality of the stuff I'd seen them play previous shows. The night was off to a good start.
Next up, Ad Astra Arkestra, which has become the primary project of Mike Tuley and the remaining members of Ad Astra Per Astra who did not move to NYC. They've recruited enough new members (cherry picked from a handful of local bands) to jam-pack the stage at a place like the Jackpot. Essentially they've just taken Ad Astra Per Aspera songs and reworked them for the new massive, percussion-heavy line-up. It comes off like a communal thing, like some Lawrencian version of Broken Social Scene. A million things are going on at once, and somehow it all manages to be more exciting and jacked with more energy than the band it evolved from. The mathy, tropical guitar lines are still everpresent, it's just that everything is now epic as hell.
The Fresh & Onlys hooked me from the first chord, and their set was violently good. Their sound isn't really anything new, but goddamn if it isn't fun as hell, loaded with killer hooks, fuzzy vocals, and guitar-solo interjections. It was all defining of the shape of modern music, which has taken the focus off of hyper-innovation and placed it on the the simple joys of having a good time while rocking out. Music that's fun and pleasurable on a base level rather than overly complicated and/or pretentious. Think the Beau Brummels with more reverb and delay pedals.
Thee Oh Sees set is best described if I just transcribe my notes, scribbled in the dark while rocking my head and tapping my foot. It reads, in barely legible handwriting: Thee Oh Sees are a fucking party band. The set-up is on the floor like a basement show & it works. Krautrock influence like whoa.
It's been a long time since I've seen a crowd at the Jackpot so riled up, and who would have thought all any band had to do was set up in front of the stage? People were losing their shit, and not just because the singer dude was rocking a 12-string guitar most of the set (though that was pretty rad).
There was no bass player yet somehow they managed to have awesome, krauty basslines holding the songs down -- an exercise in versatility if you ask me, as the second guitarist could easily switch to the high strings and pick out little riffs at his leisure. Though their recorded songs average out around the two-and-a-half minute mark, a lot of the songs took on additional minutes live and surprisingly worked even better. The six-minute version of "Block of Ice" was particularly riveting.
One benefit of the floor set-up was watching the sweat stain on the back of the drummer's back slowly conquering his shirt. There was a zoolike quality to all of it, a band on display, which ultimately led to an increased sense of participation. There's an added quality when you have a chance to look at something up close, a relationship with the band you don't get when they're standing on a stage three feet above you.
Regardless, each band was better than the one before, and reflecting on it, this was one of the best damn shows I've seen all year.