Shellac – [Live]

Saturday, 08 October 2011

A present life worth accounting for makes living in the past a mistake. Entertaining as it can be, I often cringe when a night out is taken up more with conversation about humorous glories-gone-by than any attempt to create some new ones. Apparently, Steve Albini agrees with me until it hurts. Deep into Shellac’s second of two nights at the Bell House in Gowanus, Albini – the guitar wrangler and more acerbic of the band’s two pitchmen – had reached his breaking point tolerating some dude’s incessant call for “Heartbeat.” The third generation request, for a Wire cover done by Albini’s legendary mid-Eighties group Big Black, was first met with derision for celebrating a record the man had released a quarter century prior, followed with the broadcast announcement that the offending concertgoer would never receive fellatio as reward for the purchase of the single in question. Finally, after a reprieve of several songs, the braying fanaticism was met with frustration. “Stop saying that,” Albini demanded twice, with every ounce of menace and contempt that have marked his good name since he first welded himself onto the asshole of American music. With that, he turned his sights on the larger crowd, and warbled the opening notes of “Prayer To God,” much to the delight of a room that undoubtedly had almost unanimously hoped the song would be played.

For all their railing against commercial trends and digital production, Shellac may be the quintessential band of small town boys made good. They’ve paid their dues and not compromised on their vision, even if that vision only rears its' head every half decade or so. All three members have played in well-respected, now-defunct bands and have come to occupy a lauded position as a trio of elder statesmen as iconoclastic as any before or, likely, since. So locked into each other are they that not only do the members arrange their gear so that everyone is in a straight line at the front of the stage (placing drummer and showmanship mute Todd Trainer front and center where he and his frantic nimbleness belong), they don’t bother with any kind of set list and are rarely in anything less than perfect step with one another. When they did falter (only once) during this set as they launched into their bastardization of the Boy Scouts’ motto “Be Prepared,” they actually hunkered down and took another crack at it like it was a science experiment.

In concert, the band is truly thrilling, allowing all the playful anger and nerdy rage an outlet so tightly coiled and impossibly rhythmic that the unit almost comes off as some perverse dance act. From the opener (1000 Hurts’ “Ghosts”) through the closing “Crow” from their full length debut, At Action Park (which, despite Albini’s bristling at past victories, the band recognizes as a fan favorite), Shellac conceded to the unspoken requests that got the biggest crowd response like “Squirrel Song,” “My Black Ass” and “Copper.”

The set was peppered with new material including the succinctly profane “You Came In Me” and the bulldozing pogo riffed “Compliant,” which triggered the hope that perhaps the next album may yet beat the seven-year lag between their most recent Excellent Italian Greyhound and its predecessor. The fascinating, harrowing “Bikes” alone, with its culmination of dueling screams that would scare the prostate cancer out of any other man of Albini and bassist Bob Weston’s age, makes me uncomfortably eager for a new release just so I can spin that one at my leisure.

In the wake of the glut of reunion tours and revitalized acts which have appeared over the last couple of summers, many such shows left people clamoring for some easy nostalgia at least slightly underwhelmed. Shellac never went away, they just don't come around with any regularity. This show served to underscore what a shame that really is; for all the bluster and bite of their lyrics and vocal delivery – not to mention the caustic genius of the crowd-baiting Q&A sessions Weston conducts during bouts of guitar tuning – the night’s most striking song was the instrumental “Paco,” the penultimate track off the band’s last album. Yep, even better than the songs where they really reached back, like the merger of “The Guy Who Invented Fire” and “Rambler Song” or the absurdist ballet of “Wingwalker.” Personally, however, I wouldn’t have sneezed at a run-through of “He’s A Whore” by Cheap Trick.



Shellac's current tour continues. Click here for an updated list of upcoming shows.

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