Friday, October 5, 2007

two gallants w. blitzen trapper @ gramercy theater, 10/2/07

jetlag or no jetlag, there was no way i was going to miss the two gallants show tuesday night. though two gallants has not yet gripped me in the same way that the throes or what the toll tells did, missing their inimitably raw live show is never a good decision. due to scheduling issues at connect, i had only seen their final few songs of their set, which just served to whet my appetite for a larger dose of their finger-pickin' despondency. sweetening the pot was an opening set by blitzen trapper, the portland, or. band that made a big splash earlier this year. while i have very little familiarity with wild mountain nation, the critical praise with which it has been received definitely sufficed as a reason for my attention. to top it off, the show was in the blender theater at gramercy, a venue which i had not yet been to, but that i hope to be returning to. though its ownership by blender and livenation give my conscience pause, it is simply one of the best new venues in new york. sporting a large standing pit as well as comfortable, inclined seating, the blender theater also possessed a very high quality lighting rig and excellent sound layout. with its wide, low stage, much of the crowd was able to stand very near the bands and almost see up their noses! the blender theater is an excellent venue simply because it can afford to be, without the grit and bootstrap significance of the knitting factory or the bowery ballroom, a space defined by its luxury.

as soon as blitzen trapper took the stage, i instantly stopped thinking about the wealth of the blender theater. the word is that blitzen trapper resemble pavement more than a little bit, and, i guess it's possible that's what the album is like. but no visions of malkmus were conjured during their thirty-five minute set - their influences instead seemed to range from radio country and power pop hits to the dismemberment plan and wilco. but, as their set progressed, it became increasingly difficult to label blitzen trapper. even before they started playing, their instrumentation hinted at something a little out of the ordinary; armed with four guitars (and three guitarists), three keyboards (two guitarists doubled as keyboardists), a tambourine, harmonica, and a rainbow of shakers and maracas, in addition to a solid rhythm section, it immediately seemed unlikely that the six-piece was about to launch into "summer babe," no matter what the reviews said.

despite the breadth of their instrumentations, blitzen trapper never lapsed into overabundance, keeping their songs tight and wiry. a testament to their precision is the number of songs they ran through - i put the number at fourteen. rarely speaking beyond the cursory "thank you" at a song's end, blitzen trapper was fast and furious...most of the time. while many of their songs could appeal to readers of no depression, that hallowed grail of alt-country, blitzen trapper have clearly put in effort to avoid becoming pigeonholed. though songs like title track "wild mountain nation" and "murder babe" were ripped through at breakneck speed, the tumbleweeds sprinting across the plains, others featured surprising mid-song noodling, a speed-jam session, displaying unexpected capability. despite the occasional breakout into uncharted musical waters, blitzen trapper played fast, fun alt-country, and warmed the crowd up for two gallants excellently.

it may well have been me - jetlagged, exhausted, and a pair of brand new earplugs - but it also have been two gallants. something just wasn't right. the show went off without a hitch, the almost-full house digging frontman adam stephens' every grimace and drummer tyson vogel's sweat-soaked shirt and hair, but it was a strange set. i often think affectionately of two gallants as the punkest band in show business, their DIY aesthetic more like dogma, but their performance lacked its usual violence - the duo seemed to have grown either complacent or too miserable to be angry anymore. technically, there were no problems, stephens' fingers and vogel's arms a blur, the show only pausing when vogel's ferocity broke his snare partway through the set. despite that, the show left me wanting - not more music, but the band that i remembered back.

currently touring in support of two gallants and the scenery of farewell, their recent acoustic ep, it was unsurprising that most of the songs were from those albums. two gallants didn't forget their longtime fans, though; they played a choice selection from their first two releases as well, including bruising versions of "long summer day," "las cruces jail," and "nothing to you," their final encore. two gallants delight in abruptly switching gears, switching from a tender depression to a no-holds-barred murder ballad without so much as a hint of warning, as they did early in the set with a seamless segue from "seems like home to me" into "steady rollin'." compared to some of their other transitions, though, that one was positively mild. while aurally exciting, their fondness for disparity can also snuff out all the energy in the room, which happened two times too often. it quickly became clear that no song would begin or end with any conventionality, pre- or post-logued by an aimless guitar solo. while there is no denying stephens' obvious finger skills (he used a pick only once during the set), by bookending their songs with meandering guitar, they squandered the intensity each song created. the multiple instrumental breaks, when vogel's drums fell silent, almost seemed like two gallants were thumbing their collective noses at us, especially as stephens performed a rather bastardized rendition of a john philip sousa march before two gallants broke into "two days short tomorrow."

i don't know if something about the crowd or the night threw two gallants for a loop, or whether their show is this distracted all the time now. something has been nagging at me about two gallants since i started listening to it, and i think i realized what it was at the show: two gallants are more depressed than ever. they aren't writing furious hymns and gunslinging anthems; two gallants is more a misogyny than a threat, with their fury drained out of them. whatever injustice prompted stephens to pen "long summer day" is no parallel to the jena 6, yet the most compelling songs on two gallants are about female betrayal, not racist lawmakers. two gallants now stake their claim in bars instead of graveyards, and the set they performed on tuesday echoed that discomfort and disappointment. musically, the set went well, even with the long, aimless solos; "miss meri" and set closer "waves of grain" were fantastic. yet, overall, the impression they gave was of two unhappy men who can't solve their problems because they aren't sure what they are.


adam stephens no longer writes the setlist on the back of his hand with a sharpie.

thanks to the 16+ age restriction, the front of the pit was filled with doe-eyed high school girls gazing at stephens with unremitting lust.

tyson vogel drank an entire bottle of gatorade during the set.

blitzen trapper - "murder babe"

two gallants - "long summer day"

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