Live Review: Thee Oh Sees Perform a Primal Baptism at The Chapel

Thee Oh Sees
Jack Name
Icky Boyfriends
Thursday, December 4, 2014
The Chapel

Better than: Waxing poetic about the “good ol' days” of San Francisco's music scene.

My favorite place in the City to see live shows is The Chapel, whose hallowed (and some say haunted) halls came to life last night. The former mortuary turned top-class music venue in the heart of The Mission hosted an eclectic night of music, capped by a blistering set from one of the area's most celebrated native sons.

[jump] Icky Boyfriends, who play irreverent punk and made a name for themselves in the early '90s, opened the show as fans started trickling in. A three-piece of drums, guitar, and vocals manufactures power chords and truth-be-told lyrical musings, throws them against a brick wall, and audience members stand under the splatter. A telling lyric, and a title of a 1996 feature film which profiles the band, is “I'm not fascinating”: this is a rock band that succeeds while wallowing in perpetual self-defeat. Songs ramble on about taking PCP and killing cops while drum heads burst at the seams and choppy distorted guitar fills the void between insanity and choreographed peculiarity. They've experienced a recent resurgence of curiosity, thanks in part to a live release on Castle Face Records.

Main support was provided by Jack Name, led by White Fence guitarist and LA-based studio wizard John Webster Johns. His group provided the most radical departure of the night, with members huddled mid-stage around a sonic campfire of keyboards and drum pads. Falsetto cries and male/female vocal interplay hovered above sustained arrangements of mechanical droning, hypnotizing the crowd into a mind-numbing trance. A whirling dervish of electronic phrases shifted the focus within the group, while a subdued electric guitar provided grounding and a human touch. The group is riding the January 2014 release of “Light Show” on Drag City, and will be touring in support of Ariel Pink early next year.
When I saw Thee Oh Sees at Great American Music Hall last December, John Dwyer interrupted the show to bring some alarming news: “this will be the last Thee Oh Sees show for a long while, so dig in.” To many in the audience that night, the shock and disappointment was palpable. A band that had defined and nurtured the San Francisco garage rock scene since the early 2000's was hanging their hats, bowing out to let a new generation take over. Dwyer was moving to L.A., and taking what was left of San Francisco's independent scene with him. Well it turns out that all the doom and gloom was slightly over-exaggerated, and while rumors of venue closings abound, places like The Chapel prove that having a great time at a concert here is still possible.

While the old Thee Oh Sees as a band are no more, Dwyer and his music, this time with a new supporting cast of Nick Murry on drums and Tim Hellman on bass, once again electrify the damp caverns in some corners of San Francisco. The new arrangement gives the songs more weight behind their punch, supplanting Brigid Dawson's pointed harmonies and melodic affections with rumbling bass tones. The new set-up also focuses more attention on Dwyer, whose frenetic head-bobbling and aggressive guitar picking compliments and amplifies the music he's playing. Watching the band on mute would elicit the same response; the primitive urge to smash something. The capacity crowd standing shoulder to shoulder did just that, stomping, writhing, and careening off one another in an exhausting release that everyone needed. Early in the set, “Toe Cutter – Thumb Buster” prompted a few stage dives, including one by yours truly that started with Dwyer literally kicking me off stage. The band also debuted some new material, and after a while songs began to blend together in a dizzying array of squealing guitar jabs and crashing cymbals.
After a brief two-song encore, the house lights were up, illuminating a lot of sweaty but satisfied faces. The crowd spilled out into the night with ears ringing, cleansed of complacent sin by the fervent baptism at the church.

Critic's Notebook

– All three bands return to The Chapel tonight, and though it's sold out, a limited number of tickets will be available at the box office starting around 6:30 pm.

– I asked John Webster Johns if he wanted to be quoted for this write up, to which he replied “no” while smoking a joint backstage.

– Before the set, John Dwyer got down on all fours next to the stage to allow the sound guy to step down, using him as a staircase. 

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