Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Game Played Right--- A Night at the Bombs Away Cafe

It was my second go-round for Albany, Oregon's The Game Played Right and I expected a good night (and it was) but two Los Angeles bands got in the way and by the time TGPR made it to the stage, I was wiped (thanks to two schooners of the ambrosia they call Gilgamesh Copper Ale and an early start to my day).  While this review is specifically about TGPR, I must step to the side to address the surprises which were 100 Onces and Marshburn.

They had played Olympia (Washington) the night before, had cruised into Corvallis in their van and parked in front of The Bombs Away Cafe north of the Oregon State campus and stayed there.  Nowhere to go.  Not much to do but set up equipment and hang out.  So they did.  By the time I got there, guitarist Barrett Tutobene was strolling around with his white Les Paul Jr. (?), hair held back by some sort of plastic strip, the hair obviously just long enough to get in his eyes.  Nick Van Meter (bass) and Richard Ray (drums) moved from their seats in the cafe to the van and back on a constant basis, maybe to tweak the stage setup but more probably to alleviate the anxiety of waiting.  Nothing was happening nor was going to happen until 10 PM and it was 8:30, LPDT (Lethargic Pacific Daylight Time).  What talk there was was of a bantering variety--- jokes which were only occasionally funny and talk for talk's sake.

The members of Marshburn were there as well.  Both bands had signed on for a West Coast swing and what better way to handle the budget than to travel together and, surprisingly, share equipment.  One look at the stage said this was going to be a minimalist night.  One guitar amp with footswitches--- a short, fat amp with a futuristic slant to the front.  One bass amp, pure and simple.  One set of drums--- basic.  They had arranged them on a small stage. The room itself was small, maybe 20 X 30, and the stage took up from five to eight feet of it from side wall forward and continued ten or so feet from the window in.  Huge PA speakers were stacked to the side, a bit similar to but not technically the old Voice of the Theater stacks one used to see at the bigger concerts in the seventies--- one stacked upon another.  Two gigantic 20- to 24-inch speakers were caged in thick wire and there were vents, front and sides, for sound distribution.  The real PA speakers, though, hung from the ceiling--- two large Radian modules.  Plenty big enough for the small room.  Still, my eyes kept coming back to those monstrous boxes during the evening, remnants of concerts past and a delight to see.

After an hour and a half wait, 100 Onces took the stage and planted me against the back wall with what I can only describe as manic intensity.  On their pages, they call it Math Rock, but I only found that out later that night after the gig while searching the Web.  It fit.  Loud, precision rock steeped in pounding bass and sharp, cracking drum sounds.  Stop-on-a-dime stuff.  Intricate but hardly delicate.  No vocals--- just guitar, bass and drums.  Vocals would have gotten in the way, actually, but I didn't realize that until they were halfway through a blistering set of movements (calling them songs would misrepresent the intent of the music) presented with knife-like precision.  It was a race to keep up, the guitar spewing runs and sharp grunts and groans between the occasional letups--- the soft rain between thunderclaps, if you will.  Math Rock, indeed.  I would have called it Progrock, but have to admit that it was more--- more amphetamine-driven, more manic, more chord-and-rhythm than music at times.  Was it good?  I'm still mulling that over.  It was certainly adrenaline-inducing.  You couldn't help but feel your pulse race faster, the rhythms almost forcing the blood through your veins.  Yes, it was good.  But I'm an old man.  I thanked the gods for a short set--- maybe 30 to 45 minutes--- because I was beginning to fail.  The vision was blurring, the nose was running (I had to check once to see if it was blood) and, yes, it was good.  Not exactly what one expects at a small cafe/bar.  But good, nonetheless.

Talk about the perfect touring mates.  The setup time between 100 Onces and Marshburn was minimal--- the only changes, the guitar footswitch and slight adjustments with the drums.  But what a difference in musical styles!  From Math Rock to a mish-mash of progrock and psych with a metal-driven engine.  The guitarist played what looked like a Telecaster, though it may have been one of those newfangled guitars that Country Dave Harmonson (Zoe Muth & The Lost High Rollers) now plays.  I walked up to Country Dave after a gig at the Axe & Fiddle in Cottage Grove, Oregon one night and asked him if he was playing a Telecaster because he got sounds out of it I had never heard from that particular guitar and he said, no, it was some guitar/amp combo (I have forgotten the name) that he had found and, boy, couldn't it make the sounds.  Well, Bill Ritter (Marshburn) was getting those sounds too.  And they were full and impressive.  He looked like Cowboy's Scott Boyer in his early days, beard and long curly hair, but sound-wise, they are about as far as they can be.  Boyer always has that country blues sound.  Ritter is neither country nor blues.  Add the extraordinarily powerful drums of mutant James Corsini (who played left-handed and technically should not have been able to play the sometimes downright perplexing riffs that he did) and solid bass of Vince Hill and you have the core of seventies psych meets metal.  Lay the demonic voice of Shayan S. on top and I wasn't really sure what to think.  Lanky and looking like Phil Lynott back from the dead, he shimmied and shrieked his way through some of the damndest songs I had never heard, putting the Saint Vitus Dance to good use.  Downright scary, he was, falling to knees and twisting body into various pretzel shapes to make a point.  Sad thing is, the room was too small and the PA not able to capture the vocal nuances.  It was intriguing.  I would have loved to have seen them in an arena setting or on an outdoor stage.  They really worked their set.  By the time they were done, I was done too.

I have to give the boys a huge amount of credit regarding their professionalism.  As soon as the thank you's ended, guys from both bands started packing up and moving the gear offstage.  It was 11:30 and they were well aware of the time limits in venues.  Less than fifteen minutes separated the last note of Marshburn and the preparatory kerplunks and "testing"s of TGPR.

TGPR is what I'd come for.  I had blasted them in a review of their first ever appearance.  I say "blasted" because I pulled no punches, not because I meant anything negative by it.  I dug in and told them what I thought they needed to know.  I was brutal, in a sense, but I did not mean to be.  I meant to be honest.  I meant to help them see and hear themselves and not just be bent by friends and family members who undoubtedly would wrap themselves up in the emotional rather than the honest.  Blow smoke up their skirts.  You know how it is.  How can you tell your best friend anything but, boy, you guys were great?  They weren't, but it wasn't the music.  It was everything but.  So, yes, call it a blast.  I saw five musicians onstage who sweat talent through every pore but who need to harness that talent to make it the best it can be.  First time out, it was understandable that they didn't meet my standards, let alone theirs.  They are too good to accept that.  I only wanted to make sure.

So here's the update.  They had played at least one live gig between that one and the one I was about to see.  It made a difference.  The band which took the stage the other night was a different band.  Here is how and why:

No messing around.  They set up quickly and efficiently, tuning and testing mics in short order.  They listened and adjusted.  In fact, during the set, singer Anah Manoukian roved the front of the stage, listening.  At one point, she asked the crowd if adjustments were needed  (and seemed surprised when people suggested that her voice needed more volume--- it did).  Drummer Kyle Zinserling and bassist Brian Edwards were solid, as they were the first show, but guitarist Nathan Dozler was in the midst of it all, turning toward both Zinserling and Edwards for, uh, inspiration, maybe?  And metalhead Joseph Maxwell stepped out of his bubble, shredding when necessary and supportive always, a step toward the band and its onstage mission.  This was an aware band, an attentive band.

The key to the band, as I hear them (and at the moment), is Manoukian.  Her move to the front of the stage was needed and she has taken up the challenge.  Her voice is necessary to bridge the gap for the average listener--- to bring sense to the progrock tendencies in their music.  You can hear it on a couple of the songs--- guitar breaks which fly over the heads of a portion of the audience until Manoukian brings them back with her at times Ann Wilson-like voice.  Like it or not, most bands need that bridge (unless they are satisfied playing to the ten hardcore prog fans they would have otherwise).   They need that diversity.

The other key is stage presence.  I have seen them twice now, each time on a stage small enough to restrict movement.  I would like to see them on a bigger stage to see if they can expand their presence.  I want to see the guitarists interact.  I want to see jams with all four wrapping around the drums.  I want to see Manoukian pounding beats or playing air guitar and I want to see smiles and laughter.  They are closer to that than they realize and hopefully will, without even knowing it, have that moment where everything coalesces.  I would love to be there.  It is a magic moment I have seen only a couple of times, when all members of a band are on the same page.  I would assume that it blocks everything else out, that the rest of the world goes out of focus.  They're not there yet, but they're getting there (and quickly).  With as much talent as is in this band, progress is inevitable.

There was talk of an EP from TGPR.  I knew they were recording but had no idea it was for an actual release.  It will be interesting.  The band onstage and the band on record will undoubtedly be quite different, at this point.  I'm looking forward to it.

As for 100 Onces and Marshburn, there is recorded music.  One of the guys was packing a bunch of Marshburn CDs around, trying to scrounge up gas money to make it to the next town.  Stupidly, I passed.  I have since listened to their new Miss Spelled For Emphasis album and was dragged back to the early seventies and that period's harder psych music.  I like it.  In fact, I plan on listening again tonight (my day will be full of writing) and a few nights--- maybe many--- thereafter.  Click on the album title and give it a try.  100 Onces' Tuttobene made the comment that the band had an album on bandcamp, but it wasn't much good and I would have liked to have slapped him across the face.  Perhaps he was not that happy with what was there, but you have to give a potential listener the right to make up his own mind and when you make such comments, he/she will more than likely go into it with such statements in mind.  Here is a link to their new Famous In Japan release, one that Tuttobene seemed okay with, and the album to which Tuttobene made his negative comment:  100 Once Is.  I listened.  Sounded pretty good to me.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.

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