(photo by Stefanie Goodwin-Ritter)
This tax season has not been kind to me and my wife—we owe a ton of money. Because of this our forays out into the world of live show-going will be severely limited. No Pitchfork for instance (which is fine, actually, as this year’s line-up is the weakest it’s ever been) and I’m going to have to scrimp and save what I can to get us to see Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on my birthday. There were two shows we’d bought tickets for right when they were announced—one was for the Nick Cave show at the Chicago Theater and the other was this one.
It’s been far too long since the Warlocks came through town. That was back in 2009 right in the midst of all of the Lollapalooza madness that was swallowing the city. They did a two night stint at the Empty Bottle and they brought along the Morning After Girls, the Vandelles and Gliss (the baton was passed during these two nights with the Vandelles heading to the East Coast afterward and Gliss accompanying the Warlocks back to LA). These two nights were definitely the highlight of the year with varied setlists that were a breath away from the two hour mark and filled with gems that the band hadn’t played in years—‘Red Rooster,’ ‘Baby Blue,’ ‘Song for Nico,’ ‘Inside/Outside,’ etc. The Bottle had been packed both nights at the start but as the night wore on the crowd dwindled significantly.
Last night brought the Warlocks to Subterranean, which I figured would be packed to the gills given their lengthy absence. There was a decent turnout when we got there before Secret Colours got started, but by the time the Warlocks took to the stage at midnight the crowd had dropped in size to nearly half. Not sure if it was just because it was a Sunday night, but every time I’ve seen them I’ve noticed a dwindling effect that occurs as their set goes on. I’ve always found this fact maddening as so many of their peers (many of whom aren’t half as brilliant musically or in a live context as the Warlocks) have gone on to greater success packing larger and larger venues. This mini-tour on their way down to Austin for the Psychfest was timed so that they arrived in town two days after the Black Angel’s stop at the Vic. I’ve always thought of the Black Angels as a bit of a Warlocks knock-off band and one of the great annoyances about their continued rise in popularity started in 2008 when I bought tickets to a double bill at Logan Square Auditorium of the Warlocks with the Black Angels opening. At some point during the two months leading up to the event after I’d bought my tickets and started listening to the Black Angels’ excellent second album ‘Directions to See a Ghost’ the bill was flipped and suddenly I had tickets to a show where one of my favourite bands was suddenly and unexpectedly an opener when I’d seen them headline the same venue the previous year. The Warlocks had played a free instore at Permanent Records that day as well where they played a ton of rarities for about 10 people and then turned in a completely different set for their 45 minute opening slot. While sticking around for the Black Angels’ headlining set I became more and more angry as the night wore on—they weren’t half the live band that the Warlocks were and here I was watching them snore their way through the songs on both of their great albums. I got so sick of it I left before the encore.
‘Why is this relevant?’ you ask? It’s just disheartening to watch such a great band that keeps getting better and better with each release, constantly evolving artistically, consistently delivering the goods live time and time again despite every adversity, constant lineup changes, shrinking venues and crowd-sizes soldiering on in these conditions while one of their imitators keeps moving up the ladder of popularity on the back of an album as weak as ‘Indigo Meadow.’ This is the case with so many of Bobby Hecksher’s peers—even the Brian Jonestown Massacre is locked in to a comfortably sustainable business model and their best albums are behind them (as great as ‘Aufheben’ is it’s no ‘Bravery, Repitition and Noise’ or ‘… and This is Our Music’). Watching this show felt like watching one of my own band’s shows—by the end of the night there couldn’t have been more than 50 people who stuck it out to catch the entirety of the band’s 70 minute set. It’s a feeling of frustration that I can sympathize with. Hecksher’s dogged determination to be true to his own musical intentions above all is something I admire so much I believe it’s only right that he be rewarded for his integrity—which has been tested far beyond the pale at this point. I know that this isn’t an ideal world that we’re living in where artistic integrity is always rewarded, but just the once would be nice. Plus I’m tired of seeing the band tear through brilliant live set after brilliant live set, releasing amazing album after amazing album constantly worrying that each will be the last time. Hecksher has already tried to quit the music business at least a few times.
As for last night’s set it was impassioned, massive, droning and entrancing as the band always is. Subterranean is one of those local venues that I’m always a bit leary of—the sound is almost always muddy and unnecessarily loud and/or trebly. There have been isolated incidences where this hasn’t been the case—Sloan, for instance—and fortunately last night was one of them. Since this isn’t the only time I’ve seen the band sound great at a venue with consistently awful sound quality I’m forced to believe that it’s mostly due to the strength of their own live sound as a band. Last night the bass was huge—very present but also clear and hard-hitting. The drums were dynamic if not slightly buried at times. The guitars were mixed perfectly—a nice separation between them which only served to enhance the hypnotic effect of when they were all locked in to the same parts and then branching out from each other. The vocals were a bit buried, but just at the right level.
The band was almost a completely different lineup from four years ago. The absence of longtime drummer Jason Anchondo was a bit of a worry for me at first. Once they got underway, though, all of those worries were quickly put to bed. I can always appreciate a drummer who’s willing to respect the importance of dynamics and restraint over showing off. The only other member besides Hecksher who remained was longtime guitarist JC Rees, who always manages to turn in a solid performance—last night he was in his tornado of feedback summoning mode and seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. All in all the entire band seemed to be in great spirits despite the incredibly lame crowd. After the swirling and dense plodding opener, ‘You Make me Wait’ there was brief applause followed by deafening silence. The bassist faced Hecksher, putting his finger to his lips: ‘Shhhhhh…’ he said audibly without the aid of a microphone. Perhaps it could’ve been reverence and respect that kept the crowd so quiet, but this didn’t seem like the case as the night wore on and the presence of talkers became clearer and clearer during songs.
I was really hoping that the band would play at least a few songs from the new record and I was correct. The first new song came after the dark couplet of ‘Red Camera’ and ‘Isolation’ and was incredibly dark. It was probably a bit darker than ‘Moving Mountains’ off of ‘Heavy Deavy Skull Lover’ but also plaintive, beautiful, tortured and loud. They also ended with a new song—it was like hearing one of their many lengthy jams with vocals—completely drone based with the occasional dash of melody. Mostly it just pulsed with a nicely spread ebb-and-flow type of dynamic over 10 minutes with some really nice ghostly feedback effects mixed in. It was fucking awesome, in other words—especially when they’d bring the noise during the loud sections. Besides that the set touched upon pretty much every era of the band—‘Come Save Us’ was nice to hear again as I hadn’t heard them play it in years, ‘Shake the Dope’ out was extended with a brief, inspired jam and ‘The Dope Feels Good’ was particularly fierce and driving last night despite the fact that they’ve played it every time I’ve seen them.
At the end of the night it was inspiring to see a band turn in such a great performance in such conditions. The best shows are always the ones where you see a group give their all for a tiny crowd. I’m regularly accused of being an elitist about obscure bands, but I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing the Warlocks amass a bigger following. I’d be happy to follow them into the bigger venues as this happened. There aren’t a lot of bands I would say this about, either. What’s more, they deserve it. Fuck, I wouldn’t even mind it if Pitchfork gave their next album a 9 and put it in their ‘Best New Music’ category for all of their sheep to devour it. At least the Warlocks would deserve it. Plus, that’ll never happen. Just read the archived versions of every Pitchfork review of their previous albums to see what I mean.