Ah, Memorial Day Weekend. Or, as i like to call it, the official start of The Summer Grilling Season. What better way to celebrate the return of real heat to the South than by standing over an open fire cooking meat? I spent the afternoon of this day at a barbeque, cooking and chatting and sweating. I did go home to rinse off and reapply deodorant before i went out, but apparently i am the only person to whom this seemed to be a good idea. In fact, at one of the tuning intermissions throughout the show vocalist Efrim Menuck remarked, "It's like we're all stuck in a giant armpit together." Indeed, the heat inside The Drunken Unicorn was intense, and all the smelly people who had spent the day outside certainly did not help the atmospheric conditions. When i commented on this to Tall Don from Rizzudo, who was working the bar, he replied, "Yeah, our AC is out." Great.
But i guess i am getting a bit ahead of myself. I arrived at The Drunken Unicorn at about 10, to find the small parking lot full. I had to park up the street, in front of someone's house. The club was packed wall to wall, and sweat dripped off of everyone. The heat was oppressive, but we Southerners are used to it. The band though, being Quebequois, seemed to wilt as the show progressed. And did you know that you do kind of get used to body odor, if it is all pervasive? I guess that is how humans survived The Dark Ages (so called because we as a species had not yet invented deodorant technology, so the air was dark with the stink lines coming off of people.)
I got there at 10, and opener Vic Chestnutt had already finished. The headliners were tuning and after a few minutes the leader of the band, Efrim Menuck, stepped up to his mic and said, "We are Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-la-la Band, and this is our 169th show."
And then they played. Each of the bands songs in about 15 minutes long, and between each they take about a 3 minute break to rehydrate, tune, and tweak pedals. They are a large band -- i counted 7 people on stage, and since i was stuck towards the back of the crowd, i might have been missing a few members. (It was halfway through the show when the cellist stood up to sing that i even realized she was there!)
Thee hidden cellist.
SMZ (i am abbreviating the band name for the sake of preventing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome) play classic post-rock in the ebb and flow vein. This makes sense seeing as both M. Menuck and his cellist came from Godspeed You Black Emperor, the giants of that genre.
Violinist, stage right, in singing action.
If you like that sort of thing, then SMZ do it brilliantly. They played seven songs tonight, each of which was long, epic, and flowing. SMZ feature singing, something GYBE never did. Although no one in the band has a great voice, and actually they chant the words more than sing them, this adds a nice touch to the proceedings. The voices are used to great effect on One Million Died to Make This Sound, which i found to be even more powerful live than the stunning recorded version they released a few years back.
Thee violist at stage left sings of the one million who died....
Of the seven pieces they performed tonight, none were dull, and each was exciting in its own right. If i have to pick a favorite, i would go with the 5th piece they did. Menuck introduced this as "a new tune", and judging by the song structure and the way he was using his voice, i would guess that he has been listening to Pink Floyd's The Final Cut a good bit. There was a certain level of rock guitarishness added to the ebbing flowing string-based miasma of their sound, and Menuck's voice whined in a very Waters-esque fashion. Now, before you think i am slamming them, let me point out that The Final Cut is a personal favorite, and i would pay really good money to see SMZ perform The Post-War Dream off of that record.
Personally, the Pink Floyd/post-rock connection was a real revelation. There is a good deal of the Floyd in the current post-rock scene, although without the giant flying pigs, and now that i have realized this, i hear it everywhere: go back and listen to Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai, or even Slint, and you can hear it. (Mogwai's Mogwai Fear Satan could almost have been on Floyd's Wish You Were Here record, sandwiched between Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Welcome to the Machine! Who knew???)
SMZ band played seven 15 minute pieces, and spent six 3 minute interludes chatting with the crowd, which meant i was crammed in the intense heat for about 2 hours. It was really uncomfortable, but the music was so great that i did not mind. That is really saying something. The music was epic in a level that i can barely describe. When the band is playing, and the crowd is so intently focused and listening, it seems as if SMZ are making the most significant noise in the universe. The hush of the crowd seems to spill out into the rest of the world, and i imagine everyone straining to listen to the complex interplay of the strings, and waiting expectantly for the voice. You are so focused on listening that everything else fades to unimportance, including the sweat trickling down your brow and the stench of the guy standing next to you. It is not often that i see a band carry so much weight, so much seeming importance.
Violinist, stage left, in action.
(You may have noticed i only have photos of the various string players. They were the
only ones who stayed, relatively, still long enough for me to photograph. Despite the
heat, those Quebecquois sure do move around a lot.)
One would expect this would make them very serious, but instead they were very friendly. The tuning interludes were full of good-natured chatting the crowd, and the band played seven pieces instead of their normal six because some people in the front commented on driving up from Florida to see them. Menuck seemed really impressed that people drove that far to see them, and there was much riffing on the state of Florida, and Tampa where these people had come from. (Apparently Chubby Checker was from there, i learned. Huh.) So in a sense, the night had moments of intense music separated by friendly chatting. That is pretty much my definition of a good time. I will definitely make a point of seeing this band the next time they venture down South. Perhaps they should come and visit us in the winter, allowing them to escape a snow covered Montreal and visit Atlanta during nice weather. Makes sense, n'est ce-pas?