The Thermals / History / Reporter
The Black Cat; Washington, DC
Maybe the guy holding the bloody rag to his head outside the club would portend the other events of the evening. This would be my third Thermals show of the year (one in Portland, Oregon and once before at the Black Cat), and even though the previous performance had been sold-out, none of the crowds reflected the fire and anger The Thermals detonated on their newest album The Body, The Blood, The Machine.
This time the club seemed empty. The Black Cat is a dive-bar with bad sightlines and a stage that is elevated a few feet off the ground. If you stand below six feet tall and you are not right up front, you’re screwed. There is also the “lounge” in the rear of the room replete with musty couches, cigarette-singed tables, and some withered chairs. It’s a good place to wait and have a drink while hapless opening bands drone on and on.
At least the place has character: low ceilings and cramped bathrooms. All that is missing is the obligatory haze of cigarette smoke that has gone the way of the Beta cassette since DC banned smoking indoors. We walk right up to the front.
The Thermals took the stage some time after 11 PM. Billed as a threesome -- Hutch Harris on vocals and guitar, Kathy Foster playing bass, and Lorin Coleman hitting the drums -- The Thermals had carried another guitarist the last two times I saw them. This time they came on as three. Where was the fourth guy? Two weeks eclipsed between my first shows in the winter, and during the second one, the guy had done something to his leg; he wore a big cast and had to sit on a stool. Maybe he just evaporated. No Spinal Tap jokes, please.
The roughly one-hour set favored tracks from Body. In fact, they played the entire album, peppered with songs from More Parts Per Million and Fuckin A such as “No Culture Icons” and “How We Know.” Harris leaped and yelped about the stage, neck strained, veins rough cords, like a Billie Joe Armstrong before he discovered the spread-legged Rock God stance. Foster kept up on the bass, her curls bobbing and eyes rolled up.
But how did it sound? The first few songs were bass-heavy, making it hard to hear Harris’ vocals. The tempo of a lot of the songs had been sped up. There was very little stage banter (and after hearing Kevin Barnes’ banal nonsense a few weeks before, this reviewer is glad) and the band ripped through a lithe set in what seemed to be no time. Songs such as “Back to the Sea” took on a new life, the droning structure gaining urgency not found on the album. The Thermals poured energy into each and every song, including highlights like “An Ear For Baby” and the first set-closer “A Pillar of Salt.”
On their newest record, The Thermals incorporated a lyrical bias against church hypocrisy that added a potent message unheard in previous songs. But this significance seemed lost on an audience that stood stone-cold in the half-filled room (except the four or five teenagers that tried to scrabble to the front for most of the show). As Harris tore through tirades against natural disasters, the price of oil, and Nazis, most stood impassively and sipped their Yuenglings. If lyrics such as “Our power doesn’t run on nothing/ It runs on blood/ And blood is easy to attain” or “They can tell what to read/ They can tell me what to eat/ They can feed me and send me the bill/ But they tell me what to feel?!/ I might need you to kill” don’t get you pumping your fist and angry, what does? Harris must have wanted to let the lyrics speak for themselves rather than pontificate. At one point, he told the crowd, “DC! You speak my language!” I wonder what the hell language was he talking about.
The Thermals returned for a brief encore comprising of a Built to Spill cover (“Big Dipper”) and their light, rollicking theme song “Everything Thermals.” At the end of the set, Harris promised to see the crowd “next year.” The place cleared out pretty fast after that. The bloodied guy decided not to stick around, either.
[Photo: Tom Oliver]