I’m going to tell you a secret.
Writing about live rock and roll is like cleaning out that drawer in your kitchen where you put all the shit you never use: It’s grievously simple and stupidly difficult at the same time, an act that gets easier the lazier you are and more difficult the harder you try. Better to not bother rather than spend 20 minutes yanking on a handle trying to figure out why it won’t open more than half an inch and god knows what dead mouse is hiding back there under the attachments for that Cuisinart you swore you’d use every single day but haven’t pulled out once since 2009.
Between them, Oxbow and STNNNG, who played the Skyway Theatre Saturday night, have spent almost 50 years as that fucking utensil that jams the drawer shut, that impossibility that demands more than the lazy way out. Words like “art rock” or “postpunk” or “transgressive” or “noise” or “experimental” or just “big loud and fucking scary” don’t even begin to touch what Oxbow (from San Francisco) and STNNNG (from here) create on stage and on record.
And now STNNNG, by announcing that they’re calling it quits, unexpectedly falling victim to the Picked To Click Curse just a short 12 years after winning the Twin Cities scene’s most arbitrary conferment, have gone one step further: They’re the rodent carcass you always knew was there but are scared to confront. And you missed out.
STNNNG’s final set was both defined by the tension of their own mortality and a perfect example of what they’ve always done: Five people too skilled to fall into a rock and roll flame-out cliché yet constantly teetering on the edge of cathartic collapse. Through their final 11 songs, Adam Burt, Nate Nelson, Ben Ivascu, Jesse Kwakenat, and Chris Besinger were as good as I’ve ever seen them, with Besinger on the floor, surrounded by fans in a half-circle equal parts politeness and trepidation, snarling his meticulously crafted lyrics and ad-libbed asides with the commitment of someone wrestling with finality.
Full disclosure: I’ve reviewed STNNNG half a million times, I’ve partnered with Besinger for live spoken performances, I consider him a friend. But when he announced to the crowd, “Oh great, City Pages is here. Glad you got in on the fucking guest list. I don’t need exposure on your fucking blog – I need a bottle of whiskey,” I felt the sudden need to both laugh out loud and hide under one of the Skyway’s weird padded couches. That’s what made STNNNG: They created music that not only acknowledged sonically and lyrically that the world was unsafe, fucked up, and a little bit wrong, but forced everyone who listened to them to own their own culpability. From the first song of their set, the aptly titled “The Last Nostalgia,” to the unceremonious, abrupt closing, they demanded the crowd’s attention one last time and refused to overdo their farewell.
Between STNNNG’s last set and the eager anticipation of Oxbow’s first Twin Cities performance in many, many years, Chicago’s RYLR had an unenviable and impossible task playing the middle of the bill. Heavy, instrumental, and droney, on a stage washed in dim blue light, their self-possessed performance would have been solidly received at a normal rock show. But this wasn’t a normal rock show. Playing a set that was as physically minimalist as it was musically heavy, sandwiched between two heavyweights in this dim, concrete former movie theater that felt more like the last warehouse party before the Rapture, RYLR was operating with a huge handicap.
By the time Oxbow came on, the crowd had thinned a bit, but any diminished energy in the room was compensated for as they ratcheted the intensity off the scale. Oxbow confuses and scares the crap out of me, and that’s not a bad thing. After 30 years as a band and even longer in music individually—singer Eugene Robinson pointed out that his first Minneapolis show was in 1982—they’re a band that remains defiant of even their fans’ expectations, as proven on their first record in 10 years, The Thin Black Duke. Musically they moved from heavy, aggressive art-rock to avant-jazz to blues, often in the same song, daring the crowd to guess what was coming next.
Where STNNNG’s grooves made for a satisfying discomfort, Oxbow made every musical turn a form of whiplash. Robinson stalked the stage, duct tape over his ears (he’s a skilled martial artist who’s been known to choke out unruly hecklers, and as a journalist, has written extensively about his experiences), dancing a hypersexualized shuffle and belting with a voice that evoked ‘60s soul singers one moment and distilled punk anger at its most blunt and primal the next.
Don’t misunderstand: Oxbow are razor-sharp. Robinson and his bandmates – Niko Wenner, Dan Adams, and Greg Davis – are inclined to reference philosophy, film, politics, and art movements in conversation as much as music. But there’s an immediacy to their performance that places equal importance on the gut as the brain. Noisey’s Ben Handelman called Oxbow “a meta-commentary on masculinity,” but that’s an oversimplification. There’s a restlessness in the Oxbow performance that seems to come from being trapped in a claustrophobic corner the world paints you into--maybe it’s because as an African-American man, Robinson’s spent his entire life toying with and defying people’s presumptions.
Where some of their art-rock peers of the past 30 years would create a distanced, intellectual discomfort with their music, Oxbow digs deeper, daring and enticing the listener out of their skin. From start to finish their set was raw, visceral, and relentless, Robinson giving the crowd a thousand-yard stare that made you want to scoot further back into the dark recesses of the room yet unsure what would happen if you did. Because rock and roll, to steal from Tina Turner, shouldn’t be nice and easy. It’s always more interesting when it comes out rough.
Critic’s bias: The end of the STNNNG era in Twin Cities music makes this as much a eulogy as it does a show review. In a town with a long history of big loud noisy music, they will go down as one of the best.
Random notebook dump: I think the Skyway has the same carpet as the last time I was here, hungover watching a movie the day after my 21st birthday in 1996.
The crowd: Ninety percent of the 100+ people there all knew each other, giving the setting even more of an underground warehouse show kind of feel.
Overheard in the crowd: “I think I’ve seen STNNNG 150 times.”
Cold & Well Lit Place
A Gentleman’s Gentleman
The Last Nostalgia
Veteran of Pleasure
Soft Moon Warm Spider
Real Horror Show
Storming the Medical Frigate
Subterranean Canine Cosmonauts
Relentless Memory Man
King Vulture Vista
An Idiot for Tits
Topography of Boils