The Middle East Upstairs; Cambridge, MA
Aside from the various hipsters milling about outside on any given night smoking Camel Lights and generally looking menacing, you might never know there's a rock show going on upstairs in The Middle East. The main stage lies beyond a cozy diner and bar, tucked into the back of the building where, ordinarily, a kitchen or supply room would be. Point is, it's a guarded space: while the other of The Middle East's stages, located around the block, is designated for larger, more established acts, the upstairs stage is home to bands with a seemingly pious, if relatively small, following. It's for this reason that I like seeing shows in the smaller, more intimate upstairs. Here you find yourself pressed into a corner or against the stage or another body, taking part in the indie rock equivalent of a Pentecostal church sermon. People actually (get this!) dance and move around. Everyone is having fun. I dunno, I guess I've just been to a lot of shows where it looks like nobody gives a shit, with people standing around watching the band as if they were critically viewing a de Kooning painting.
Never was this ecstatic atmosphere more apparent than during Holy Fuck's set. The four-piece took their time setting up, lugging out a seemingly endless supply of equipment. (Apparently, crowd members yelling "holy shit!" is a joke that follows the band around.) In one of the more intriguing setups I've seen, founding members Graham Walsh and Brian Borcherdt stood facing each other amid piles of stacked gear: the spaghetti mess of wires and jigsaw of pedals, keyboards, and turntables looked almost like it was all culled from the junk bin at an electronics outlet, old and leftover and pieced together. Yet the off-the-cuff sound this setup perpetuated ended up being the most endearing part of the show, as the two frontmen were allowed to pick and choose between dozens of options to bring their songs to life. Behind Walsh and Borcherdt stood the (equally integral) rhythm section of drummer Glenn Milchem (turning in a heroic effort to keep up and even propel the alacritous pace of the sound manipulation going on up front) and bassist Kevin Lynn, who did well to ground the band when it occasionally (though wonderfully) charged toward the mercurial and excitable.
After a word of thanks to the now teeming crowd, the band launched into "The Pulse," which starts with a driving bass line and drum beat, accompanied by an echoing, throbbing synth that continually swells and grows in vigor as the song unfolds. It's an extremely danceable song, and it had most of the crowd jumping around almost immediately. Of course, it's practically scripture at this point, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out how incredibly energetic and frantic both the music and the members of the band were. Holy Fuck is a band that relies heavily (and thrives on) improvisation both in the studio and on stage. On any given night, an audience could hear vastly different versions of the songs from Holy Fuck and LP. And despite the band's high level of musicianship, I would imagine that, similar to even the most sagacious comedy group, Holy Fuck could have an off night here and there. It happens, I'm sure. Not on this night, though. The band nailed song after song, adding length and depth with clever flourishes and extended jamming. Borcherdt and Walsh stood hunched over their equipment, bobbing along, pressing buttons and keys, manually manipulating pedals, plugging in wires, aggressively attacking the great spread of musical artillery laid out before them.
The band's enthusiasm was infectious, and they seemed genuinely happy to see the crowd so responsive. And in a move that was damn near unfair in terms of our general health (and let's face it, PBR and whiskey aren't exactly the best workout elixirs), the band, now firing on all cylinders, fully in sync and devastating, ripped through "Frenchy's", "Super Inuit," "Lovely Allen," and an untitled new song, leaving the crowd exhausted but buzzing. Sure, both Holy Fuck and LP are notable for their ability to churn out DIY dance-pop with digestible song lengths, but their live show is another beast altogether. The grooves are still prevalent and intoxicating, yes, but with space for the songs to morph and twist and surge organically, the band had everyone rocking out on an altogether different plane. And this is where that Pentecostal sermon bit comes in: while no one (that I could see) was rolling around on the ground and speaking in tongues, there was a tangible energy purring throughout the room. I thought of the other shows I'd been to recently -- The Thermals, Sunset Rubdown, A Place to Bury Strangers (in that very same room) -- and while those bands stir up their fair share of hysteria, I cannot recall a show where seemingly everyone was slinging and heaving, unpolished and wild-eyed. It was a beautiful racket.
At the turn of the century, dancepunk bands like The Rapture, cowbells and funk bass in tow, unlocked a generation of stiff hipsters, made it safe to dance at shows again. And while Echoes is still a landmark album in its own right, the disco ball had, for the most part, stopped spinning. Holy Fuck, though (yes, based on seeing one performance and a mere handful of songs), has the potential the carry that hip-swinging torch. And really, I see no backlash coming. They seem humble, appreciative of the praise that's been heaped on them recently by the press and the public. Holy Fuck have the charisma and musical talent to be around for a while, and they deserve to be. Though to be honest, a band called "Holy Fuck" probably won't be garnering much mainstream success. And I'm sure they don't give a shit. They're just having a damn good time.
[Photo: James Mejia]