Dean Blunt's "White Flight"
OHWOW Gallery; Los Angeles, CA
The OHWOW gallery space was quite large, perhaps the length of a basketball court, although maybe a little smaller. The walls and floors were white. I arrived at the very beginning of Dean Blunt’s first American gallery performance, “White Flight,” not long after Blunt (Hype Williams) had finished setting up the space. At least, I believe he set up the space; there is photographic evidence on Twitter suggesting as much. Anyway, why I note that is because, when I arrived, the table, which was immediately to the right upon entering, was piled with alcohol (Cîroc) and fruit juice and those red and white plastic cups. (There were also two potted, fake plants at the foot of the table). At the center of the gallery space was a table, piled on and surrounded by In-N-Out burgers and fries. There must have been a couple hundred dollars worth of fast food on/around the table. No one really touched it until the hour-and-a-half mark, but some people sporadically took fries off the table throughout the night. Unsurprisingly, the alcohol was gone within the first 20 minutes.
Scattered all around the floor were dark red balloons (#99luftballons). Throughout the night, balloons were popped and kicked and thrown around without any apparent reason, but balloon interaction was, overall, pretty infrequent.
Furthermore, three shirtless black men who weren’t allowed to speak spent the night flexing, posing, and photobombing — I kid you not — almost every attempted photo I witnessed.
There was also loud, commercial rap music playing throughout the entire event. Occasionally people danced, but mostly they didn’t.
There was a rather large, semi-thuggish white guy walking around. He was there alone (I talked with him after the show, and he said, “Yeah, I was supposed to come with a friend, but he had to babysit…,” and then evaded every subsequent question that I asked). Throughout the night, he walked around yelling “psyche!” at the black men, throwing money on the ground, and then intimidating the guy who picked up (stole?) the money. (After the show, in a moment of dubious clarity, he asked me if I had seen who “did it.” I had. I had seen everything that happened that night.)
I’m genuinely uncertain as to whether or not this guy was a part of the show. I saw the black men getting paid at the end of the event, but this guy was never paid. I find it curious that the most intimidating person, the one who tried to establish any control over the seemingly aimless happening, was a large and semi-thuggish white guy.
I guess in a performance like this you can’t control everything that happens. For the most part, people came in, drank, looked at the food, stood around, talked with their friends, and then left. I stood against the wall, watching, the entire time. One person asked me what was going on, while another even asked me if I was Dean Blunt. I didn’t drink or eat, and I spent most of the time watching the schmoozing that happens at these kind of things, judging peoples’ fashion sensibilities (sorry), smiling at people who looked at/photographed me, and texting my girlfriend, in real time, everything I was seeing. But, eventually, something always happens. Toward the end of the night, the thuggish white guy came up and asked me if I wanted to use the balloons as a bed. My girlfriend had just told me to do something weird, so I said, reluctantly, “sure?” I walked over to the corner where he had gathered all the remaining balloons. A couple guys followed us. He told me to lie down, so I lied down in the pool of dark red balloons. Someone took pictures of me lying there, and when I stood up, I instinctively bowed. At that point, the event was basically over.
I wonder: did I enjoy “White Flight?” Was that even the point? The truth is that I stuck around for all of it, so in some respect, yes, I did. It was clear early on that Dean Blunt would not be playing music, and that what I saw was what I was going to get. It was also clear that it was, in some respect, a social experiment, and the conclusions were pretty predictable. I got some self-satisfaction as I was able to determine what would happen, and when. I enjoyed the questions that I asked myself while I was there, alone in the gallery, watching. But something hit me as I was standing outside, after the event had finished and as I was driving home. A few blocks away, and an hour later, James Ferraro and Dean Blunt would be playing actual music together at the Soho House in West Hollywood (which is, for all intents and purposes, a country club for monied, “creative” elites). The title of their Soho piece was “Watch the Throne,” while the title of the OHWOW Gallery performance was “White Flight.” On the one hand, a thousand-dollar show in luxury, and on the other, a free gallery show with shitty hip-hop, fast food, and relatively cheap alcohol. The distinction seemed too obvious. And what had initially felt like a potentially interesting, if somewhat obvious, social experiment/performance piece became a reminder that most of us didn’t have access to the real show, and that we likely never would.
[Photo: Barron Machat]
Ether Festival 2012
The South Bank Centre; London, England
Fear had seemingly gripped the lads sitting behind us as the lights went out. Their in-group chortling a thinly veiled cry for comfort as the suspense grew, Ralph Cumbers and Nick Edwards stood in front of their equipment, and amplifiers began to hum. How loud was this thing going to be? With their visuals a subtle flickering of rainbow tench scales, a thick black lugworm draped across, thumping pulsations were pelted through shambolic noise improv and contorted trombone sequences. With darker hints of breakbeat and dubstep gorged from out of nowhere, EkoClef proved to be the perfect opening act, a not-so-quiet lull before the tech surge set to follow.
Raime opened with a mutating polonium grid that entrapped its audience, earth-shaking bass pulsations carried exquisite visuals as they morphed into some rough of a leather jacket, its bearer quaking in mid seizure while this pulverizing headline set literally ravaged the Purcell Room. The performers remained anonymous, cloaked in darkness that surrounded their gear as silhouettes bobbed ruggedly to throbbing industrial techno, every beat a tectonic juggernaut. I was on the edge of my seat, eyes glued to the screen, ears trying to make sense of what was happening. The experience was utterly thrilling.
The Queen Elizabeth Hall Front Room was just outside, surrounded by a loop of tables, facilities, and bars. Airhead was in the cutting throes of his DJ set and a jostling crowd began to steadily amass in front of him. We danced, partly as a consequence of McAndrew’s tracklist, partly to recover from what Raime had done to our nervous systems. Mount Kimbie were soon to follow; lights cracked and strobes burst as the pair attempted a suspense build-up, which broke out into the ever-popular “Carbonated.” The remainder of their show was solid, but incomparable to that of the Purcell experience, for something extraordinary was witnessed on the South Bank that night.
Thee Oh Sees / Sic Alps
Rickshaw Theatre; Vancouver, Canada
Located at the infamous intersection of Main and Hastings, the Rickshaw is not a place for the faint of heart. The venue was built in 1971 as an Asian movie theater, a flagship piece of the once-great Shaw Brothers cinema empire, but it closed down in the mid-80s as the wave of North American interest in kung-fu movies broke and rolled back. It sat empty for 20 years or so, until someone tore out half of the seats, spray-painted most of it black, and reopened it as a concert hall. It’s an unimaginably dirty venue, chock full of character, with great sight-lines and a decent soundsystem. As such, it bares all the hallmarks of a classic rock ‘n’ roll space.
Sic Alps and Thee Oh Sees made the perfect double bill to see at the Rickshaw Theatre. They’re both California bands with psychedelic and garage leanings, both touring in support of fantastic new albums (an eponymous Sic Alps album [sold at the show for only $5 on tape] and Thee Oh Sees’ Putrifiers II), and both have the ability to lull you into a haze and blow you away with a paisley grenade. Yet, their performances brought something a little different to the table this evening.
While scenes from the 1978 classic kung-fu revenge flick The 36th Chamber of Shaolin played on the dual screens that bookend either side of the dimly lit stage, Sic Alps was the first band to step out of the darkness. Their set wasn’t perfect, as co-founding lead guitarist Mike Donovan’s vocals weren’t particularly strong considering how high in the mix they were placed, and lady luck snapped the strap on his acoustic, forcing him to uncomfortably coddle his guitar for “Love Is Strange” (one of the oldest and goldest songs in their set). Commendably, they built up the energy and intensity as they moved along, incorporating more noise by the last few tracks and bringing the mosh pit up to a simmer with their apt cover of “The Seeker” by The Who. After his set, Donovan was surprised with a couple of candles in a cupcake, and the crowd, learning that they were celebrating his 41st birthday, joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
Thee Oh Sees turned up the heat immediately upon gracing the stage. Beer cans started to fly by their first note, and the mosh pit spanned from one speaker stack to the other, a bustling activity that would retain its vigor for the set’s duration. With a smiling Mike Shoun on a minimal six-piece drum kit, perpetual head-bobbing machine Petey Dammit on guitar, and the underrated Brigid Dawson solidifying the group’s vocals while adding tambourine and Nord Electro keyboard, founding guitarist John Dwyer led his crew through a barrage of brisk, reverb- and delay-laden fuzz jams that were seemingly on the brink of unruliness yet fluidly disciplined. His vocals awash in effects, Dwyer moved from falsetto to absurd growl to carnival barker, ever supported and occasionally carried by Dawson, as he alternately gripped a clear acrylic Electrical Guitar Company DS and a green-and-black Burns Double Six 12-string guitar high on his chest, his dark, cut-off shorts adding a hint of Angus Young to his swagger.
The unforgiving concrete space reverberated the energy of the room as much as it reverberated their art-punk noise, largely benefiting both. By the end of their set, the B.O. of the Rickshaw crowd had reached a stench of Romney tax return proportions. Everyone in the place was either wiping sweat from their brow or reveling in their own filth. It’s freeing to see bands that can take you to that place of transcendence, where individual comfort becomes secondary to the experience of a happening.
Jason Lescalleet and Graham Lambkin / Hild Sofie Tafjord / Rhodri Davies
Cafe Oto; London, England
Candles flickered in the darkness as Graham Lambkin stood assertively over his equipment, a glass of whiskey in his right hand and a blue shirt on his back; there was something about the scene that didn’t quite fit. But then I wasn’t sure what I should be expecting. Jason Lescalleet was sitting opposite eating a satsuma, a crumpled cardboard box over his Casio worked as a dinner plate for collecting peel and pith as Lambkin rested his glass on the table and began flicking switches on his laptop. Faces in the audience were difficult to make out, the mood snug with a cozy twist of herbal tea and stout that lingered in the air while couples shared the last of their coconut cookies, consumed throughout the course of Rhodri Davies’ amplified harp set. Sound began to seep out of the speakers, an electric barracuda caught in barbed wire, rustling, cracking, and snapping as Lescalleet returned to his reel-to-reel gear for spool manipulations.
Lambkin covered a microphone with plastic and dragged it across the edge of the surface supporting his mixing desk, some choral dirge he had been looping faded out and the collaborators continued their fiddling. Prongs, clatters, and high-pitched pulses burst out of the speakers. Folk held their hands to their ears and winced while others lovingly beamed. Lambkin finished his whiskey, draped a microphone over his shoulders, and bobbed at the buzz as it banged against the tape recorder he held with careful hands. Once the penetrating bulges peaked, the volume shrank and lit the way for aquatic sampling. The performers bowed to their audience, clapping ensued, and we vacated the premises.
How to Dress Well
Santos Party House; New York City
That photo isn’t from last night, because my phone was dying and Tom Krell started out by saying “Can we get these lights off?” proceeded by the projection of faces slowly taring from each other, visually screaming, set against white. Now it surprised me that How To Dress Well expanded to include a keyboardist and sampler/violinist, because I remember him just using a sampler and doing the best karaoke-style singing ever. Anyway, the set started out real fucking heavy, something about “You got a baby now” and “Shit.” It was hard to pinpoint a lot of his tracks for two reasons. First off, my favorite part of live shows is sound absorption. Almost each and every song was a struggle for him to belt out the sweetest little licks through the most layered noise; it was borderline magical. The boii got pipes, and maybe it’s the raw emotion or conscious sacrifice of art, but it all worked too well. Second, they’re just kind of that act that switches their original track style when played live. Yet, that makes a more interesting show. Most of the songs performed here I recognized off the new How To Dress Well album Total Loss, two or three were from Love Remains, and one new track. The last track performed was “Ocean Floor For Everything,” which seized my pal Stephen with sound. I looked over to see his eyes flickering back, jamming his fist in the air. He had been saved!
Godspeed You! Black Emperor / Total Life
The Bottletree Cafe; Birmingham, AL
I arrive at 8:33 PM, hoping to beat out the crowd. Of course, the crowd is the standard beer-chugging, college/post-college-yet-still-affiliating-with-undergrads types and the ilk. I’m immediately struck by the oddly festive air in the room. Inappropriate emotion for the occasion? Bottletree’s David Lynch-borrowing theme also adds to the incongruous atmosphere. What was I expecting? Surely they all know that a reckoning is upon us? Complete abysmal despair is what we’re waiting for… Then I wonder, has Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s reputation preceded them? The line from Pineapple Express comes to mind: Is Godspeed just a go-to band? I’m getting anxious.
A Krautrock documentary plays on a screen that blocks the band’s equipment. Foreshadowing, fitting, and telling. There’s a Krautrock playlist playing as well: Faust, Can, Ashra, Kraftwerk, etc. At least the venue is alluding to our end.
Soon, a drone overtakes the room. The crowd is perplexed. Eventually, they settle. The drone rises and the room begins to vibrate. Tones modulate continuing to rise. No sign of the opening act yet. Interesting.
The drone becomes frantic after a while, clustering, pulsating. Still the room sits unaffected, or patient, maybe. “Godspeed will arrive soon?” they wonder. The drone drops, glitches, but continues on all the stronger. Still no sign of the opener. The only form of life on stage is a lamp, emitting blue light. More tones, more frantic. Higher tones. Piercing, domineering, ear-splitting. The weight of the abyss? Stage lights up for a moment, then quickly goes out. People begin to cover their ears or chin stroke. Frankly, I’m frightened. This has gone on for about 30 minutes at this point. When the drone sustains for a while, the crowd parts… I see the noise maker. Opening act Total Life. No one even looks his way. He skulks off without a word.
Godspeed arrives, sophisticated. They take their places, tune. Projected blurred images are cast over them. After about 10 minutes of a droning build, a train appears on the screen. The band mimics the sounds of a train: bowing cymbals, beating the violin strings with a kind of stick. No one is impressed. Then they drop the weight of god upon the audience. The full band shoots through the opening track of the new LP. It’s gorgeous and overwhelming.
After the show, the band leaves the stage politely waving. A few shout out, everyone else heads for the bar. My eyes are wet.
[Photo: Justin Lynham]