ARTS

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November 21, 2003

Consuming the firewater, discussing Firewater: a Pub post-mortem

Out of all the advances in communication, perhaps none has ever had the impact of a completely full pint glass in the dimly lit corner of the local bar.

Sure, the cell phone has made one easily available at all hours of the day. E-mail has made it possible to cheaply, quickly, and easily communicate with someone located half a globe away. But, at the end of the day, it's a full glass of the local poison that finally loosens tongues and prods conversations into motion.

And it is just at the beginning of such a prodding that I begin this story. Around a rickety little table in the Pub that was listing like a sinking ship sat myself and two friends, Steph and Matt. We had begun the evening covering the usual gamut of work and gossip before the pitchers of Killian's began to hit. Tongues lubricated by beer, our talk began to trickle and meander towards the show we had seen a few days before at the Empty Bottle.

After a few more sips (to spark the intellectual fires, so to speak), we set our slightly bleary critical eyes on the opening act of the evening, a two-piece combo named Birdland. Armed with a junkyard of dilapidated "vintage" organs, beat boxes, and a rotary speaker, Birdland consisted of a black garbed duo—a chunky warbling singer and an effete instrumentalist who handled everything else.

In a remarkable case of the past repeating itself, Steph (who had spent much of the set eating dinner) ordered pierogies and then daintily excused herself from the discussion at hand.

Matt lit a cigarette, then fired the opening salvo: "I'd expect to see them in a David Lynch film," he began, trying to describe the demented calliope music produced by Birdland. "It was like cabaret dirges, or the house band on Sprockets."

I nodded, nearly spilling my beer. "They played music I'd like to be buried to, if only to make the mourners distinctly uncomfortable," I offered. "The whole feel of the set was like someone holding a gun to the band's child, and a sinister European voice going ‘Play or I shoot!'" I slammed my hand onto the table, spilling potato chips down the front of my trousers.

I was furiously brushing potato shrapnel off my crotch as Matt took the conversation in hand. "I think I liked them better when they were known as The Captain and Tenniel," he grandly proclaimed. "But other than that, I wouldn't see them on a $2 Bill tour."

Steph politely swallowed her pierogi. "What was up with that singer? She didn't move around at all. Besides, she really could use some voice lessons and some soul." We all shrugged, laughed, and drained our glasses. What can you really say about a band with no stage presence that sounds like a dying record player?

A pitcher was bought to replace its fallen comrade, drained in the name of rock and roll. Glasses were refilled, and with great difficulty, we refocused on the serious business of contemplating the next band, TV on the Radio. Another in a long tradition of misbilled second bands at the Empty Bottle, TV on the Radio was the complete antithesis of Birdland. They had enough soul, energy, melody, and stage presence to do a two-night stint at the Aragon. They were loud and boisterous, in spite of a dead crowd. In short, they were pretty damn fun.

This time, Steph drew first blood. "Well, I thought they sounded pretty crappy in the beginning," she said between sips of lager. "They couldn't bring their voices together at first, but when they finally got it together, it was tight."

"They had afros," I exclaimed joyously. Matt and Steph simply rolled their eyes. "No, really," I continued. "They had soul—more soul than any other garage band I've ever seen. Excellent stage presence—well, no. More like unavoidable stage presence, and coupled with the most polished-but-raw sound I've ever heard live."

Matt crushed his cigarette out. "I was at their earlier show at Reckless Records, and given the strength of the synthesized sounds and ambient noise on their debut EP, their live show was a total surprise," he said, reaching for his pack.

"The punked-up versions of their slower songs, the energy…It was a very basement concert and it breathed life into their songs."

"It's a shame the crowd was so unresponsive," I interjected. "They didn't respond to anything really—not to them singing ‘Happy Birthday' to some girl in the audience, or the afro'd guitarist's dancing."

"Or the wind chimes on the other guitar!" exclaimed Steph. "Remember that part of the set where the other guitarist played with a full set of wind chimes dangling from the end of his guitar?"

"Yeah, I think I remember," I mused. "That was one of the few times he actually faced the audience."

"Right," Steph continued over me. "And when he started singing into the drum mic, everything just worked. It was a moment of pure…well, let's just say it worked."

Matt and I nodded. The Pub was close to closing now, clumps of chairs being placed upon tables. We paid our tab and staggered out of the bowels of Ida for places north. Feet scuffling and thudding in syncopation, we were halfway up the stairs when Matt turned.

"How was that last band, Firewater?" he asked. "I've heard good things about them."

I propped myself up against a wall and thought for a second. "Well, they were weird. Not Birdland weird, as they were tuneful, but they were still just plain strange," I started. "They came out, snaking through the crowd and playing an evil-sounding waltz. Like you'd expect at a wake in New Orleans."

"They came out with accordions and trombones and saxophones and just proceeded to make the evilest, creepiest dance music I've ever heard," I said. I was gesturing wildly with my arms at this point and dancing a slightly tipsy foxtrot. "It was if Tom Waits had a party band that did Eastern European weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. It was crazy drunken klezmer punk music!"

"Well, were they any good?" Matt and Steph queried mere milliseconds apart.

"You know, I'm not really sure," I replied a bit sheepishly. "All I know is that I'm going to remember that show for a few months to come, which is more than usually happens."

We all laughed and got in Matt's car as a light drizzle began to fall, coating Woodlawn with a slick varnish. It was time to go home.