Bloc and tackle
When you set out to see some aging indie rock du jour live, as we did last Friday when Bloc Party returned to Nashville for the first time since City Hall was still a thing, you go in with certain questions. Questions like: "Where the hell has Bloc Party been for the past seven years?" and "Did they really put out two albums so mediocre that we forgot they existed?" But mostly, you wonder if anybody in 2013 really still cares about Bloc Party.
As it turns out, yes — people do still care about Bloc Party. It's just the exact same people who cared about them in 2005. The only difference is that you're a tad less party-ready in your 30s than in your 20s — a fact that would become completely obvious as an enthused but shiftless crowd struggled to meet frontman Kele Okereke's expectations.
When we arrived at Cannery Ballroom, openers IO Echo had already taken the stage and were well into a set of ultra-dramatic pop music. Strobes a blazin' and lit only with blue backlights, IO Echo singer Ioanna Gika flailed around in the darkness like Stevie Nicks on Quaaludes, singing songs that sounded like Mazzy Star's record collection. We don't usually begrudge bands for taking their music in earnest, but there was something about their "serious business" vibe that put us off of their set. As pleasant as their songs may have been, they didn't feel like they earned their art-music trappings. You've got to be big and weird to pull that sort of pretense off, and at least at this point, IO Echo is neither.
After IO Echo packed up their Japanese folding screens and peaced out, we hung by the bar to watch all the indie-rock dads puttering around. At one point, a dude bought so many shots for his friends in the crowd that the bartenders had to supply him with a box to carry them in. That's the sort of dedication to drinking we can't help but respect. Nice work, bro. But mostly, we were surprised by how few people we recognized. After last weekend's local band blowout at Mercy, Cannery and The High Watt — where we saw everyone we've ever met from junior high school forward — being in a crowd that skewed decidedly older was jarring, to say the least.
Three drinks later, Bloc Party appeared onstage, opening their set with the almost comically on-the-nose "So Here We Are" off Silent Alarm. And for all of our curmudgeonly griping, we couldn't help but feel caught up in it. Bloc Party may not be as relevant as they were in 2005, but they're still showmen. Songs like "Hunting for Witches" and "Banquet" are still solid Brit dance-rock tunes, and the band wisely leaned on their first two records, occasionally kicking out newer tunes and mostly ignoring 2008's ultra-dull Intimacy.
And yet, for all of Okereke's attempts to get the crowd hyped — crowd surfing, crowd participation, singing "One More Chance" on top of the bar — the room didn't turn into the dance party we expected. Part of that might just be the more grownup tone of last year's Four, but it also seemed like the crowd just wasn't all that interested in getting down. That plus the diminishing returns of your average Bloc Party record gave the band an uphill climb for winning over the crowd that they never quite conquered. Sure, there was a pocket of über-fans who were losing their damn minds, but their excitement didn't spread into the rest of the flannel brigade.
The crowd may not have been falling all over themselves for some Bloc Party, and we may have been bummed they didn't stack their set with uptempo singles, but Okereke did deliver a pretty sick burn to Manti Te'o when he introduced "So He Begins To Lie." As far as we're concerned, that plus a second encore that started with a Rihanna cover ("We Found Love") and ended with "Helicopter" made the whole thing worth it.
But seriously though, would it have killed them to play "Octopus"?
Squirmin' on the mount
For both band and audience, the house show can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's intimate and fun, with few rules. It's a great place for musicians to field-test their secret formulas, and it's easy for artist and fan to get to know each other when they're literally cheek-by-jowl. On the other hand, that low risk does limit the potential rewards: Often, there's no stage, you'd only call it a P.A. if you're in a forgiving mood, and the cops might show up to shut the whole thing down. It's an adventure undertaken for the love of the game, and The Spin was excited to cap our week with just such an outing.
The petite villa known as Mt. Swag is a near-perfect location for a house show: Perched atop a steep hill, it's surrounded by empty lots and construction-supply businesses, and its backyard provides an astonishing view of the city. We felt a little like E.T. seeing the L.A. suburbs for the first time. The Spin piled into the music room just in time for Dirty Dreams, which we'd yet to see in person. Since issuing their one online offering, 2011's Dirty Demos, the group has augmented their post-punk-meets-Beach-Boys sound with a full-time drummer, and replaced the Casiotone accompaniment with a meaty triple-guitar attack. The group managed their stage volume well, giving us and the 20 or so others squeezed into the room a full-body massage without splitting our skulls, and the guitars' distinct tones were discernible, even if the vocals weren't. We were the only ones who called out "Yes!" when they asked if they should turn down a little, and that was only to give the P.A. a fighting chance, but we were voted down. If it's too loud, you're too old, right?
Up next were Clear Plastic Masks, transplants from the hip-a-center of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant district, who recently collaborated in Thunderbitch with locals Fly Golden Eagle and locally recorded Grammy nominees Alabama Shakes. CPM work some of the blues-soul territory currently dominated by groups like The Black Keys, but where the Keys garnish their brew with a little of glam's electric sugar, the Masks flavor their Stax-y concoction with something a little older: strains of streetwise Dylan, circa Highway 61 Revisited, curled without irony through tree-like frontman Andrew Katz's snarl. Eddy DuQuesne and Charles Garmendia in the rhythm section held back on the dynamic of their playing, loping along like Levon and Danko until time to pounce at the end of the set. We're definitely looking forward to seeing them again at The End on Jan. 29.
Taking a break to chat, we missed the start of Ranch Ghost's set, and it was almost too late to do anything about it. The little home on the hill was brimming with young'uns, and the mosh pit that threatened to break out during the first two bands materialized in full force. In the middle of it all was a cameraman with a handy battery-operated LED panel. We certainly don't begrudge the guy trying to get good-looking video, but the brightness was too much for us. We went all Mogwai and retreated to the front porch, where we found guests poking into the room through an open window. Score! Best seat in the house. Like a good old-fashioned peep show, everyone took turns at the hole in the wall, ogling what someone referred to as "THE cutest band." Whether due to his explicit encouragement or their own stepping up to match his playing, it seems like Ranch Ghost has gotten tighter and tighter since Mitch Jones (Majestico, Fly Golden Eagle, Thunderbitch) came on board, prior to their NYE show at The Stone Fox. Like Dorothy waking up in Technicolor Oz, our ears snapped to attention at the refreshing contrast provided by his gritty gospel organ, as a sound we already enjoyed got even better.
We had learned our lesson: When it was time for Western Medication, we just hung out by our porthole. It was getting to be a popular place, but we held fast. The show was booked to celebrate Western Meds' new 7-inch, The Painted World, recorded at Battle Tapes and officially released on Jan. 29 by Jeffery Drag. Their strong OG-punk underpinnings doused in garage echo were on point to keep the party moving, but with regular drummer and Bad Cop frontman Adam Moult down with the flu, the remaining members and their able sub wrapped it up just before midnight. This lineup could have easily rocked most bars or clubs around town (and in so doing, be a little more intelligible), but we'll join them at the clubhouse anytime.
Visit nashvillecream.com to see our full slideshow from Justin Bieber's appearance at Bridgestone Arena.
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