Two tales of survival
Bare Grillz at Sound Summit 2013 on Sunday, November 10. Neutral Milk Hotel at the Enmore Theatre on Thursday, November 14.
Bare Grillz. Photo by Chris Foster.
There's that lovely and completely unmistakable element of excitement in the air. The notable presence of anticipation and that nervous wait of energy. Understandable. Fifteen or two years is a bloody long time.
Occasionally, a patron isn't able to deal with the build up. The thrill of the occasion is too much and the excitement overflows into a high-pitched yelp. People watch patiently as the band assembles their gear, positioned — as always — in the middle of the allocated crowd area. Right there. Meanwhile, a roadie enters from the side of the stage to make final adjustments. He'll lose his job if things aren't turned on and connected correctly. Predictably, his activity on the stage is greeted by a few more shrieks of excitement. His moment in the spotlight, even if solely generated by false identification and intoxication.
People have timed their smoke breaks well. They assess the scene. Evan still needs to tighten his hi-hats and do up his shoelaces, sufficient minutes to duck out into the alleyway to suck down another dart. Fight the crowds that bottleneck at the place where the man stamps their hands, and again 5 metres further where the other man checks the stamps' legitimacy. We can go over there to the right once we get back in. People at the Enmore never go that far right. Politically and physically.
Earlier we were fairly settled in at the bowlo. Backyard table, tap beer and conversations about code with that old mate from Adelaide/Melbourne/Auckland/Earl's Court. All of the places heralded as 2013's most desirable destinations. There's loads of memories and stories to get through. And not just featuring bands from earlier in the day. Eyes aren't what they used to be (earlier in the day, before all these bloody beers) and it's hard to see across the green and into the tiny, makeshift venue on Faversham Street. Have they finished setting up? We should probably think about heading over. Soon.
Nine-thirty is a fairly early start, even for a band with a lot of favourites to get through. But the sensible time management decision still doesn't stop people looking at their watches at precisely 9:45 and loudly questioning the band's reputation for punctuality, whilst nervously shooting glances over to the bar to see if that queue is moving. Does the bowlo do take-away beers? Is it worth the risk? I don't wanna miss that first jolt of energy as the Grillz kick into life. And once they dim the lights I'll probably never find my way back, even with these 7 foot tall mates I use as gig lighthouses.
Thursday is almost the weekend and Sunday's often end this way. One more won't hurt. That guy who got the last round before the show commenced loudly gloats about his accidental perfect timing. Accompanies this bragging with jovial complaints about the lack of liquid now in that can. But the entertainment has started, and we've waited years for this, so surely there's an amnesty on social etiquette. Apparently not. People drudge out to complete their duty, dragged down by reluctance, turning back to witness their idol/s play that song that, although lyrically making no reference to the event, reminds them of a lost love or the death of a specifically important relative.
Similarly, Jeff's bandmates frequently leave their leader alone on the stage. This is his band, a fact that while muddled during their first lifetime, has since become an unmistakable fact. These solo performances are the highlights of the evening. Gentle internal wrestles, loaded with obvious insecurities and slithers of awkwardness. Every line taking on a greater personal significant by the solitary spotlight and lack of instrumentation. His music is re-imagined in this format, becoming clear validations of loneliness, even celebrating the unrequired element of companionship. The same introverted character trait that paused his musical career for over a decade.
Alternatively, Bare Grillz is an all inclusive experience. They function as the epicentre of their world and for whatever reason (timing, pioneering, ability, intensity) they've always felt like the leaders of the exciting Newcastle music scene. The best of a bloody great lot. Their performances have always followed this lead. No stages here, just a band in the middle of a small room, surrounded by mates and acquaintances and very few others that don't fit into those two circles. Occasionally extra cast members contribute, grabbing microphones and singing along. A tribal gathering, of sorts. Everyone is part of this.
Evan's vocals are heavily distorted, accentuated further by his current state of exhaustion. Those in the front row - standing alongside his drum kit - can probably understand what he's saying, afforded the luxury of words entering their ears before they exit the speakers. Jeff mumbles under his breath, his words buried under his insecurities and wilderness log cabin beard. That said, he's more accommodating than anyone expected, obviously pleased to be back, finally showing the deserved pride in his creative work.
This is a moment that deserves some form of elevation. Loaded with pure triumph and unrestrained energy — this sound is uniquely it's own, yet bashfully modest about that fact. In many ways, it's formed as a modified, warped version of all it's influences. Pop music twisted out of it's comfort space and into an abstract lo-fidelity orchestral march. Punk music inflated from it's fragile transparency into a swarming mess, burying itself alive and fighting for each extra moment of oxygen-sponsored survival.
It's an intensity that builds. Each song reciprocating it's predecessor. Endless tidal waves, creeping in slowly and eventually re-filling the vacated space with another round of noise, horns and hooks. There's a definite repetitive quality, but it's natural — segments of a more complete adventure. The 'famous songs' are sliced in the middle with little sense of grandeur. But even the less familiar bits are filled with a wonderful sense of warmth and purity. Each trumpet note is delivered with amazing clarity. Each feedback-loaded blast shakes the cement floor slightly. It's been a long time since this sense of overbearing power has been felt. We hang on every single note, word, thrust of energy and gentle beard stroke. This is music that warms, occupies your insides, right up to the brim, before overflowing as oversized facial grins and elbow nudges to your neighbouring companions.
Those explosive horns easily fill the large void space towards the roof of the old Enmore. Their unexpectedness amplifying their impact. We creep forward and the sound moulds, the drum's are significantly stronger in this new position, each step exponentially expanding their power. The screeches and strained vocals follow right behind. Eventually it all merges into a more extended brass instrumentation and a whirlwinding tornado of noise.
This is merely the victory lap, so the mind naturally begins to wander.
Most bands don't survive this. A celebratory return without having the moment's significance elapsed by the changing perception of their work. Or, worse still, having the whole thing supported merely by nostalgia. Personal issues limped the inevitable success of Neutral Milk Hotel. Differences in timezone values halted Bare Grillz's natural momentum. There were plenty of other options available. Side projects, hibernation comforts. But they survived. Internal issues were shrugged off, motivation found and, most significantly, their own creative tastes remained unchanged. That focus alone should be commended. Returning without a step missed, as if time was paused just for them.
The whole thing is emotionally exhausting, but worth it. Other bands are playing later on, but this will do me just fine. Mates are going for beers down the road, but I'm done. No need to gamble on blurring this solid memory with more noise/alcohol — it should be treasured, at least for a little while. As it's rare for a show to leave me feeling like this. Rarer still for it to happen twice within five days.