May 2, 2003

On a stiff Texas breeze, art rock fragility rolls into hard rock rage on Metro stage

"Shit, man, I feel like Cat Power."

--Conrad Keely, April 24, 2003

While that epigram made me laugh, heartily and loudly, as Conrad Keely struggled to bring his guitar out of an obscure tuning in order to play their set's first song, "It Was There That I Saw You," I could not help but wonder if he was overestimating his audience. Call me an elitist if you must, but I have a feeling that for most of the North Siders and suburbanites crammed into the Metro last Thursday night, Chan Marshall resides somewhere on the obscure reference scale between James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan stories and Mofungo. I mean, did the people looking for a place to throw up in the balcony really know that a) there is an artist named Chan Marshall, who records as Cat Power, b) that her live shows are pretty disorganized affairs, and c) specifically, that her guitar is never in tune?

Therein lies the interesting thing about ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. Their sound is a blend of the delicately aesthetic and the powerful; their audience might feel hustled if they learned that the music they are hearing is rock music, yes, but it wants to be art, too. On stage this plays out in the tension between Keely, the band's resident ironist, and angry-man drummer Jason Reece, who works himself into such a frenzy that he cannot stand still at the microphone. Within the constellation of their chaotic live show, Reece tends to win out; the roar of songs like "Homage"and "Days of Being Wild" sounds better bouncing off a packed live room than "Another Morning Stoner," whose brilliant call-and-response finale was completely lost amongst the sound levels. When the techs give priority to the lower end of the sonic scale, it's hard to make such a carefully constructed song take flight. A similar problem occurred during some of their new material; "Intelligence" might become a live favorite in a few years, but everyone may need to mellow out a bit first. Still, it's hard not to like this band live. They destroy their setup at the end, which is always a good thing, and watching them is like watching a real-life enactment of the struggle between Virgin and Dynamo, Henry Adams' twin forces of history. We might not know that we're seeing it, but seeing it we are.