Sun Ra Ra Ra (Magic Cheezies / Queen Licorice / Holy Mount / Ghost Trees)
The Silver Dollar Room. Saturday, February 27, 2010.
Show up early enough for one of Dan Burke's bills at the Silver Dollar and you never quite know what you're going to get. There's something touching1 about the way that he will add a band at the bottom of the bill that has no stylistic ties to the rest of the night — in this case slipping in a band of mostly soft edges in a night otherwise filled with hardness. This would turn out to be the case with Ghost Trees2, mainly a vehicle for the songs of singer/guitarist Jamie Steep, backed by a pair of friends on keyb and an 80's drum machine. The latter wasn't used for cranking out programmed rhythms; rather, sitting on top on a floor tom, it was "played" live by Chris B., sitting behind the kit. Its tones — tinny and mechanical but still slightly off-kilter — lent the songs sort of a minimalist C86 type of sound. You know those albums where there are bonus tracks of demos of the album cuts, stripped down, with a drum machine in the background? And how sometimes those demos have a raw, honest appeal that goes missing somewhere when the songs get fully fleshed out? Listening to Ghost Trees playing live was like listening to that. One new song came out a little on the rough and under-rehearsed side, but it was mildly endearing and fit in with the band's gently shambolic kind of vibe. The tunes weren't all killer, but if nothing else, the band is working out a rigourous and distinctive sound which could turn into something quite interesting.
Listen to a track from this set here.
That would be the last time on this night that terms like "quiet, understated charm" would be floating through my head. As a passel of young men started lugging an enormous amount of gear on stage, the place started to fill with a fairly young crowd. And soon that gear — giant bass cabinet and immaculate new-looking Marshall amps — was being put to the test by Oshawa's Holy Mount. Leading off with "Wild Weather", rising out of a couple minutes of guitar noise before a sluggishly churning beat and another woozy guitar line took over. As if I'd just chugged some codeine-laced cough syrup, everything suddenly got slow and heavy. Playing only five songs in their half-hour set (a couple of which stretched out to about the seven-minute mark) the band definitely had some heaviosity going on. Outside my usual musical sweet spot, to be sure, but to the extent I can get behind anything that falls into the wider category of "metal", I'm more likely to be behind something that's appending a prefix like "sludge" to it.3 The vocals were... serviceable, but the band was more about imparting a vaguely psychedelic molasses pour of a time. Again, probably just my particular taste talking, but I actually enjoyed it the most when the tempos were at their most sluggish. On the whole, I liked this more than I thought I might have at the outset, though this probably isn't the sort of thing I wouldn't go out of my way to see.4
Filed more definitively under "wouldn't go out of my way to see" would be Queen Licorice, up next, and sharing the use of all that aforementioned fancy gear. The band's complement included, besides the musicians, a "Spiritual Guru", and I guess this was the skull-mask-clad bloke handing out licorice to the audience as the band finished setting up. Also loud, I must confess that this band didn't do anything for me — they seemed to be aiming more for something like "radio ready modern rock".5 When I'm taking in opening bands, I normally make a point of trying to remain attentive and give them a fair shake, but by a couple songs into this set I'd had enough, and moved over from in front of the stage to find a spot in the raised seating area, leaving more room for the not-insubstantial number of supporters that were in the room — obviously this was to their taste. A couple songs further along, even sitting and watching seemed like too much and I had pulled out my newspaper, keeping myself occupied with that. Other problems notwithstanding, the band arguably overstayed their welcome, with their set lasting for over forty-five minutes. Of course, a long set is always longer when it's not your thing. Plenty of time to look at the headlines and ponder one's mortality.6
But if life is brief, a set by Magic Cheezies is quicker. Once all of that gear was cleared off, the stage looked positively spartan as the trio took over, with Heather Curley's guitar hooked up to a peeny Peavy amp. I was won over by their Wavelength 500 appearance, though the band seemed less-than-pleased with themselves on that night, so I wanted to see them again when they were less preoccupied with technical gremlins. Except for their respective snack-related monikers, the band was pretty much the opposite of the one that had preceded them, which I think gave them a little something extra to push against.7
As with the Wavelength show, the set was here and gone in a flash — nine songs in under fifteen minutes, but it felt like about the exact right amount. Once again, Curley led the band in a white-hot clamour, her singing punctuated by arresting yelps and whoops as she generated crunchy, feedback-laced noises from her guitar. The lyrical content is sometimes hard to decipher, but enough phrases slip through ("so sick and tired!", "you make up the words!", "what are you gonna do?") to get their attitude across. Their flow through the set was much more assured this time, with the last squeals of noise from one song still cutting through the room as the count-in for the next song began. There are moments in my life where I want subtlety and nuance and delicacy — but in the opposite-feeling times, Magic Cheezies is exactly the sort of thing I want to hear. Quite superb.
Listen to a couple tracks from this set here.
I was also eager to have another chance to see Sun Ra Ra Ra. Besides wanting another dose of the energy they brought to the stage, the last time I'd caught 'em, they were short a keyboard player, so I did want to see how that affected their sound. The vintage Ace Tone did do a bit to gather together the sonic confusion, and its presence was felt on the opener, which was more of a slow groover. But by and large, the Sun Ra Ra Ra sound is raucous garage spasms, presented with a semi-chaotic stage presence. The vocals — presented with I-drank-acid-and-I'm-pissed-off-about-it scratchy intensity — might be at the far end of the take-it-or-leave it scale for some people, but fit right into the band's ragged gut-punch aesthetic. If the Stooges spent an afternoon huffing turpentine and then decided to bash out some Chuck Berry covers... well, you get the idea. An essential live experience, especially their glossolalian version of "Surfin' Bird", which, in defying description, needs to be seen to be believed. Suffice it to say, SRRR take the song past "creepy", and nestle it right up against "alarming". The finale involved a lot of instrument-swapping with the song in progress, concluding things with the right amount of ragged abandon.
Listen to a track from this set here.
1 Or possibly totally mercenary.
2 Not to be confused with Ghost Bees, Ghostlight, or Ghostkeeper. Or, for that matter, not to be confused with Screaming Trees or Treepeople.
3 I mean, like, yeah, I have some Melvins cassettes stored away in a box somewhere.
5 And, oh — that sentence required some lengthy consideration to keep it mostly out of the realm of making me sound like a pretentious knob. My notepad has some less kind commentary written at the time, including "suitable for bored kids to smoke hash to" — which might actually be looked at more positively by this band than I meant it.
6 The latter thoughts were probably dredged up by the fact that I was sitting across from the Gord Brown mini-plaque affixed to the back of the wall seats. It's a touching thing, worth keeping an eye out for next time you're at the Dollar. It made me ponder at which venue I'd want my engraved memorial, should I suffer an untimely demise.
7 "Thank you to Pearl Jam for that lovely long set," was how Curley put it. And to a certain extent, the lack of appreciation from Queen Licorice's fans was reciprocated — a couple women who had been right up front dancing through QL's set lasted for about one minute into Magic Cheezies before they gave each other a preplexed look and decamped from the room.