Dead on arrival
It was 8:30 p.m. on Thursday when we strode up to The Zombie Shop for local punk blog Nashville's Dead's third birthday and caught a glimpse of something we'd never witnessed before: unlucky punks being turned away at the door of a warehouse show. It's true, the place we always assumed had an official capacity of "however many people we can cram through the doors" was already sold out beyond belief. We feel for those shunned dudes in denim jackets — they missed one hell of a birthday party.
We can't quite put our finger on why, but Gnarwhal sounds like The Muse (the departed Nashville venue, not the British band). Or, at least, Gnarwhal sounds like the music we were listening to when we were going to The Muse. Highly technical and ferociously hardcore, the duo wavered between screaming emo-core-style breakdowns and finger-tapping, twitchy math rock. After taking advantage of the beer line momentarily being shorter than the merch line — in Nashville! — we wandered the floor and found ourselves surrounded by the strangest hodgepodge of people we've ever seen at a show. People who had clearly just left work were intermingled with Rat Patrol (the local freak-bike gang acted as security for the night), with the olds, the babies, record collectors, burly psych-rock fans, waifish punk rock chicks, local scenesters, rock-scene celebs and even some band members' moms wandering in between.
Before long, D. Watusi took to the stage. Technically speaking, this was also their album release party — Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall may have been the main draw, but it's the Watoos' name on the cake. But you wouldn't know it from their show onstage. We've seen D. Watusi play dozens of times at this point, and this was ... a D. Watusi show. Tight as always, the poster children of Nashville's Dead rocketed through a set of tunes off their newly released debut LP, Dark Party — which by the way, is a surprisingly dynamic and diverse debut effort. Dylan Watson's nasal wails are still bratty, which suits the blues-rock-inspired, organ-tinged garage rock that has become so familiar. We like D. Watusi, and now that they've released a record, we hope to see them push outward a little from their comfortable niche.
Useless Eaters were up next, and frontman Seth Sutton has a vicious punk sneer that amps up hard live. While the tunes on Daily Commute sound closer to Wire than Dead Kennedys, Sutton comes off like he's barely being held back by the bounds of the stage. Furious and unmistakably punk, Useless Eaters blew the Memphis punk chunk of the show wide open. But it wasn't the in-your-face punk anthems that intrigued us — it was the weird, slowed-down tune toward the end of the set. We didn't catch the name of the song, but it was akin to Television-meets-Hot Water Music, and it totally ripped.
As the night wore on, we started to feel the weight of the (perhaps overly) expansive lineup hard. Ex-Cult (formerly Sex Cult) brought their Black Flag-inspired punk rockery onstage around 11, finally drawing us nearer to the main event. We dug Ex-Cult and the little slice of Goner Records they imparted to us, even if they were the only obstacle between us and Thee Oh Sees. We witnessed some truly acrobatic crowd-surfing moves and watched as the Rat Patrol calmly and coolly escorted a roughhouser from the pit.
We drifted around out back for a bit, still somehow astonished that this, the biggest crowd we've seen at The Zombie Shop yet, wasn't being broken up by the fuzz. Somewhere past midnight, San Francisco's stellar Thee Oh Sees mounted the stage. We clumsily found our way into fray, scaling plywood and hopping scooters in hopes of gaining a decent vantage. Speaker stacks swayed, the sweaty crowd bulged and bobbed, and frontman John Dwyer and his crew ripped mercilessly through all of our faces and torsos with their throbbing West Coast psych rock. We've seen Thee Oh Sees in Miami, at SXSW and on a goddamn cruise ship, but this warehouse explosion was a sight to behold. They're unfortunately no longer touring with the double-drummer lineup we liked so much, but Dwyer did call Ty Segall drummer Emily Rose onstage to double up on some floor tom grooves in their second-to-last song.
By 2 a.m., the crowd had thinned somewhat — still not enough to make the warehouse feel anything less than full — and that's when Segall launched his redlining, grungy psychedelia. While Segall embraces that groovy, lo-fi, throwback aesthetic that's so popular among the San Fran and Nashy's Dead rock 'n' roll sets, he does so with genuinely good songs — strong, singular vocal melodies embedded in fuzzy sounds and a wild delivery. Standing on tables and bar stools in the back, sleepy members of the rock scene stuck it out, swaying along as a committed semicircle near the stage throbbed and bounced. Ty even dove off a speaker and crowd-surfed at 2:15 a.m., God bless him. But six hours in a crowded Zombie Shop is about as exhausting as ... shit, six hours in a crowded Zombie Shop. So that's where we left it. Happy birthday, Nashville's Dead. You made us about four hours late for work on Friday, and it was worth it.
The Lawn at Riverfront Park is a sweet spot to see a show. With the Nashville skyline to your left and the pedestrian bridge to the right, it's hard to sit on that hill and not be awestruck — hard to not just sit there and think, "Goddamn, we love this city." And that's The Spin talking — we hate everything! Or almost everything. Shit, we'd even go so far to say that it's such a beautiful spot that we don't even care who plays there. The Spin went to see the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival on Friday, and that is not something we'd ever thought we'd be interested in. But we had a great time. Clearly, the embers of the thermal plant infused The Lawn with some really good vibes. Or something.
Now, we're not exactly Zac Brown Band fans — we caught Brown & Co. once at Bonnaroo while stoned out of our gourds and actually enjoyed it thoroughly, but we couldn't name a ZBB song for the life of us. Still, we're fans of the way those dudes throw a party. The two-stage setup, alternating between name-brand acts and up-and-comers without the need for huge crowd shifts, was really cool — the sound on both stages was loud and clear enough that no matter where you were on the festival grounds you could hear them rather well. The changeovers between acts were seamless, and according to our watch, the whole kit and caboodle was only running about 15 minutes behind schedule — which, for the first night of a first-time festival in a brand-new venue, is nothing short of miraculous. The layout and the crowd-herding security measures were apparent enough to make us feel safe, but casual enough that your average crowd member wouldn't notice he or she was being herded.
Top to bottom, it was a really well-run, well-executed festival. Our only real disappointment was that the Biscuit Love truck ran out of their hot chicken biscuit right before we made it to the front of the line. Well, that and we couldn't run fast enough to escape an appearance by John Mayer. But these are not things Zac Brown and his crew can control, so we're not holding it against them. Well, they could have not invited Mayer or Sheryl Crow. But it's the Southern Ground Music and Food Festival, not the Zac Brown Caters to Music Critics Who Would Rather Be at a Dingy Moped Shop Festival. We knew what we were getting ourselves into when we volunteered for this gig, and we were actually surprised that seeing two of our least favorite artists of all time was less gut-wrenching than we figured it would be.
Overall, the music was actually pretty cool. Maybe it was the perfect weather, maybe it was the perfect location, but even The Spin — the last folks you could imagine diggin' on some country-jam tunes — was feeling it. Amos Lee makes neither cookies nor blue jeans, but he does make some laid-back, rootsy grooves that fit perfectly with a sunset and a glass of single-barrel on the rocks. Nic Cowan somehow made ukulele-reggae seem like a thing we could listen to on the regular, and Zac Brown Band was, well, just as pleasant and enjoyable while we're sorta-sober as they were when we were stoned out of our gourds in Manchester. Clearly, it's music that doesn't require drugs to be fun, though a bag of mushrooms would have been the perfect complement to the gorgeous light show they had.
And Alan Jackson! Sure, he was only onstage for a couple of songs, but the man's presence was enough to make us to swallow the fact that we had to sit through two Sheryl Crow songs. Seriously, it was a great night, even if we had to look at Mayer's supremely punchable mug for about 15 seconds.
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