The Builders & The Butchers
Mercury Lounge; New York, NY

The Builders & The Butchers' sound is hard to peg down. Portland's Willamette Week called them, "A demon-possessed Southern Baptist preacher leading a requiem at a swamp-set, barn-burning hoedown." I'm not quite sure that description does them justice, but my own came up short with "Americana Punk."

Waiting for the show to begin, I began to notice the deliberate lack of electric instruments. It looks as if they could play without amplifiers if not for the light conversation running throughout the crowd. But with the simple sentence "Hi, we're the Builders & The Butchers," the humble band that seemed subdued only seconds earlier explodes into a torrent of movement and sound.

Frontman Ryan Sollee has a John Darnielle-sque quality to him, in that each lyric belongs to a story of a distant place and time, but he still seems pained to sing them. His face contorts, as if the sweat dripping from his forehead is burning his eyes. His feet stomp, guitar slung high across his chest; Sollee is a man possessed, . The entire band is possessed; the audience is possessed. Sollee's like a caricature of Leadbelly crossed with Bon Jovi. One second he is intently focused on the microphone in front of him, aching to get the words out, and the next guitars become axes and are being held high against one another for dramatic effect.

There is constant movement all around the stage. Not only from Sollee, but from the rest of the band. Two percussionists surrounded by a staircase of bass drums leading up to a snare -- always in motion. Their arms are flailing, feet stomping, various smaller percussion filling in gaps left by the drums. Tambourines snap back and fourth. Banjo/Mandolin to stage left, an acoustic bass player (who looks strangely like Harry Shearer's Derek Smalls from This Is Spinal Tap) on stage right.

This show should have been played on a street corner in the 1930s, not the Lower East Side of New York City. Each song sounds like it was written by someone who has been sitting in a library too long, reading tales of deception and hardships from long ago. The Builders' "Red Hands" repeats, "When you take a man's life you fall down/ You fall from the grace of god," while song titles range from "The Gallows" to "Bottom of the Lake."

Once told by the sound tech that they only had two songs left, Sollee began to hand out tambourines to several members of the audience. For the next five minutes, the audience was a flurry of noise. I had never seen a band take such great care of an audience before. They have mastered the give-and-take that is the relationship between band and crowd. As much as we were pumping along, the band pushed us even harder, trying to get that much more out of us.

In the interest of full disclosure, both Sollee and I went to the same school in Alaska and worked at the same college radio station (albeit at different times). Refreshingly, I can still hear a bit of the openness of Alaska in his songs.

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