The last time The Spin attempted to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor — our angsty, pretentious teenage self's most beloved instrumental rock band — we were about as sick as we've ever been. Riddled with some kind of horrible flu virus that we unsuccessfully attempted to drown with enough chicken soup for us to be brought up on charges of poultry war crimes, we half-shuffled, half-shambled into Cannery Ballroom last year to see Efrim Menuck and a band of like-minded Canadian anarchists for the first time ever. And then we proceeded to flee almost immediately, completely ruined by a potent mixture of nausea and low-register doom drone.
You can probably surmise just how excited we were to see post-rock's greatest champions making their return to Cannery on Friday — one year, six months and 19 days after our teenage indie-rock dreams were dashed by illness (Spoiler Alert: pretty damn excited).
Lambchop frontman and bona fide local legend Kurt Wagner was already onstage by the time we arrived at Cannery. We have to admit, Wagner isn't the first name that comes to mind when we think “Godspeed You! Black Emperor local support.” Compared to the crushing weight of the average Godspeed song, Wagner's quiet folk songs seem as thin as paper. But we know as well as anyone that Wagner's got a weird streak in him a mile wide — that's one of Lambchop's defining attributes, and we're always totally thrilled to see Wagner onstage.
If only the rest of the crowd shared that feeling.
Wagner's low and slow baritone was met with a loud din of conversation that overwhelmed his quiet drone-acana tunes. As we made our way into the thick of the crowd, we overheard someone complain that Wagner's set “feels like its been going on so much longer than 15 minutes.” Every time Wagner went louder, the crowd matched him. We're sure that his acoustic rendition of “Mr. Met” off Mr. M was as fantastic as it is on the record, but damn if we could hear it. As Wagner's set came to a close, he sounded almost defeated when he intro'd his closing improvisational guitar tune with an, “I'm going to make something up and get the fuck out of here.” Ah well. You can't win them all, K-Dub. Also, we're sorry for calling you K-Dub.
Two beers later, the house lights rose and dimmed again, signaling the beginning of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's menacing “Hope Drone” opener. For the uninitiated, the first 25 minutes of every Godspeed concert sounds more or less like found sound in a haunted sawmill operated exclusively by members of a Canadian doomsday cult. At first, we weren't even sure if “Hope Drone” was part of the show or just random ominous feedback. But then we remembered where we were. Members of the sprawling band slowly assumed their positions on the stage and the crowd fell into dead silence. Much to our disappointment, they weren't all wearing hooded cult robes. Bummer.
Gradually, the band transitioned out of the drone and into “Mladic,” Godspeed's first new recorded song in almost a decade and the first of what was to be a total of four (yes, four) “real” songs in the set. As much as we appreciate the visceral thrill of feeling like we've accidentally walked into a subwoofer, GY!BE is at their best when they're playing songs that, well, sound like songs. “Mladic” and its companion, the yet-to-be-recorded “Behemoth,” are closer to drone than anything, but they have enough strong, resonant melodic moments that they're utterly captivating.
This'll come as a shock to exactly no one, but Godspeed You! Black Emperor — a band where one of the members sits at the front of the stage with his back to the audience — isn't the most exciting thing to watch live. Thankfully, there were two things to keep us occupied: First, the idea of a live projectionist touring with the band is a little absurd but, as it turns out, completely necessary. We can't say whether or not the images of typewriters, architectures, scribbled-out diaries and seemingly random text enforced the themes and ideas of Godspeed's songs but they were at least cool to look at. So, at least there's that?
The second was watching some of the most stoned people we've ever seen (outside of Bonnaroo, anyway) ping-ponging through the crowd like some kind of drunk zoo animals. One dude in particular moshed around, spilling beer and getting on the last nerve of everyone up front. We think he's the one who started shouting “Wake up! Wake the fuck up!” toward the end of the band's two-hour set, as if he'd forgotten that we were at the rock music equivalent of the symphony — not a dumb punk show (and we say that as lovers of dumb punk). Calm down, nerds.
In fairness, though, we can't fault those overexcited nerds too much. Our teenage brain just about melted when the violin melody to “Moya” off the EP Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada started up. And the full 25-minute version of “Storm” from Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven was a mind-melting, intense experience that we feel lucky to have had. When we say we prefer Godspeed when they sound more like they're playing songs and less like they've recorded a haunted boxcar derailing, this is what we mean. As much as we like the part-drone, part-orchestral new stuff, it's the old stuff that unlocks a kind of potent nostalgia only accessible by seeing your old favorite band and noticing that they're exactly as good as they were 10 years ago. If not better.
We'd be lying if we didn't admit that Godspeed started to lose us around minute 90 of the show, when they again dredged into a Mariana Trench of moody, bone-shaking feedback and bass tones, but that was only because watching bands like Godspeed is actually exhausting. The music played onstage alternates between punching you in the temple and lulling you to sleep. It's a roller coaster. But as often as this band is labeled “pretentious,” we couldn't help but feel like only the impossibly sincere could make music this nuanced and emotional. Godspeed You! Black Emperor knows how to push all of our buttons — which is just what they did for two hours. And we couldn't be any happier about it.