How To Wear A Blood Goatee

A week of pummeling pop with The Walkmen, Broken Social Scene, and Walker Kong

Sometimes the greatest thing childhood piano lessons teach us is that we shouldn't play. "The better I got at music," poet and essayist Bill Holm said at a recent MPR reading at St. Benedict's College, "the more I realized my shortcomings--the things I didn't know and the things I could never do. You get to a certain point in practicing...and you realize that the music is always more beautiful than your power to give it to other people. So you fail every time you play it. But your only choice is to fail again and again."

I wish I'd delivered such an eloquent speech to my parents when I--no joking--nearly flunked out of my high school table tennis class. ("Ping Pong is always more beautiful than my power to give it to people....") But this week, inspired by Holm, I listened to bands make mistakes and then pled with them to make more. I followed them into their tour vans while passionately professing my undying devotion to the music's inherent splendor. After they were gone, I became a bit misty-eyed. I like to believe I'm getting sappy in my old age. Of course, it might just be the residual effects of the pepper spray.

 

The Walkmen, Monday March 8 at the 400 BarWhen he sings, Hamilton Leithauser spreads his teeth so far apart that I can see mountainous rows of dental work--and there's gold in them thar hills. He's smart to put his money where his mouth is, though, because as he opens up to say Ahhhhhh, a thunderous howl tumbles out straight over his fillings. Crouching on top of the amp with neck veins bulging, the Walkmen frontman hollers, "Can't you hear me? I'm bleeding on your wall!" Yes, we hear him and we're not the only ones. Right about now, people in Siberia are pasting Band-Aids over the wallpaper.

And yet what a wrenchingly lovely sound pulses in our ears. Harmonizing along with Leithauser's Herculean vocals, the keyboards mewl their saddest sympathies on "138th Street" while Paul Maroon's guitar stutters through each note, shattering it into syllables. Fragile and frantic, the song is like a Christmas carol sung outside an empty house. "You go out in the night, 'til you got no place to go," Leithauser moans, his abdominal muscles contracting as if his pants were held up with live power lines. From that anguished face he's making, you can tell he's singing his heart out. And maybe a small chunk of his esophagus, too.

 

Broken Social Scene, Thursday, March 11 at the 400 Bar The bar is filled with warring factions tonight. Broken Social Scene's jam band/indie rock fusion seems to have bridged the gap between tipsy yuppies and thirsty hippies, between collegiate punks and boisterous oldsters, between one man's fist and another man's nose. As the Toronto collective launches into another epic guitar and bass duel, a boozy giant in the audience tries to prop himself up with nearby heads, knocking over random Lilliputians on the way. When he loses his balance and falls to the floor, one incensed bystander can't wait to administer knuckle shiatsu on his face. "He has a blood goatee!" a very excited local radio host notes of Gulliver's travails.

It's hard to tell whether BSS's Brendan Canning is amused or disgusted by the violence. "Now if you could all just slice your arms open and suck on each other's blood," he jokes not long after the brawl, "we're gonna play another song."

Just like that, the crowd's attention turns back to the band. All night, the artfully sprawling rock lulls the lovers and the fighters into a state of dewy-eyed contentedness. Though BSS trade instruments and lead vocal responsibilities like good democratic Canadians, Kevin Drew's velvety murmur best captures the band's slow-burning atmospherics. But Canning still gets all the good lines. "All these people drinking lover's spit/Sit around and clean their face with it," he croons. Somewhere, someone is saving up slobber to help Blood Goatee wash up his mug. But I don't think he can take another licking.

 

Walker Kong, Saturday March 13 at the Turf Club"We wear the tight pants!" Jeremy Ackerman declares, proclaiming that it's a rock band's job to model body-hugging jeans. The crowd responds with rapturous applause.

Granted, at this point in Walker Kong's dynamic performance, we'd applaud even if Ackerman extolled the virtues of mohair pantyhose--and that's only partly because he'll single us out if we don't. "There's one of you not clapping," he scolds, surveying the room. "You, the girl with blond hair in back. Yeah, you. Oh, now she's doing it. I'm going to stay on you."

Even the blonde doesn't need much prodding. As Ackerman unleashes one of the longest and most charismatic monologues in Turf Club history, segueing directly through the band's extended "Billie Jean" breakdown, one fan can be seen clapping double-time--perhaps a young flamenco aspirant. And when the band launches into its sweet, harmony-laden pop anthems, everyone chimes in on call-and-response vocals, some vigorously shaking the maracas that the WK crew distributes to the audience. Ackerman suspects that such rapture may be due to the fact that the Turf is a vortex for sexual energy--that's why it's so "hot" in here, he insists. If that libidinous climate doesn't make you want to slap your sweaty palms together, I don't know what will.

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