Saturday, May 16, 2009
Heavy sounds: Melvins stomp through their history at Webster Hall
As much of a Melvins freak as I am, I was oddly not all that psyched for the band's 25th-anniversary show at Webster Hall last night. A lot of that probably had to do with the gig's gimmicky conceit: King Buzzo (above, in long-ago adolescence) and Dale Crover, along with guest bassist Trevor Dunn, would play 1993's Houdini in its entirety, preceded by a "Melvins 1983" set with Crover on bass and original member Mike Dillard on drums.
This might seem blasphemous to some, but I've never considered Houdini to be a totally satisfying album. The first two tracks, "Hooch" and "Night Goat," are indisputably among the finest heavy-rock songs ever composed, but after that, there's quite a bit of what sometimes feels to me like filler. Re: the 1983 stuff, I'd only had minimal exposure to it via Mangled Demos, and though I found it to be a charming time capsule re: the band's snotty punk origins, I wasn't too impressed.
Fortunately, the show surpassed my expectations in every single way. It was completely phenomenal, rivaling the other pinnacle of my scant few years of Melvins concertgoing, the debut of the Big Business–abetted quartet lineup on the 2006 (A) Senile Animal tour. (Here's a TONY preview/interview I wrote at the time.) At Webster, the band took what seemed like a formulaic and predictable concept and made it genuinely suspenseful. I was hoping to take pictures but I stupidly forgot to charge my camera battery. Instead, I humbly offer this detailed recap.
Introducing the 1983 lineup, Buzz joked a bit re: Dillard being just out of prison, but otherwise the frontman was surprisingly warm and gracious. The ensuing set was brief (maybe 25 minutes or so) and a great warm-up to the show. Dillard isn't a great drummer by any standard, but he seemed thrilled to be onstage with Buzz and Dale, the latter of whom was surprisingly capable on bass and backing vocals. The straightforward, hardcore-era songs, like "Forgotten Principles," came off as solid and catchy. Another highlight was "Set Me Straight," which dates from that period but was re-recorded for Houdini. (It made another appearance in the later set, with the Cream cover "Deserted Cities of the Heart" tacked on.)
At the end of the last 1983 song, Dillard quickly switched places with Crover. The latter kicked into a thunderous march rhythm, which the former mirrored on a miked-up snare near the front of the stage. The drum pattern settled into "Second Coming/The Ballad of Dwight Fry," a set of Alice Cooper covers from 1992's Lysol. Dillard then exited, giving way to the highlight of the show: a Buzz/Dale mini duo set that surveyed their entire career, via tunes from 1991's Bullhead ("It's Shoved"), 1989's Ozma ("Oven"), 1996's Stag ("Black Bock") and 2008's Nude with Boots ("Suicide in Progress"). This part of the show struck me as a badass declaration of independence for the frontman and drummer. Melvins have gone through countless incarnations since the early '80s, but Buzz and Dale have been the twin anchors of the band that whole time. (This is something I can relate to a little, given that two thirds of my own band have remained stable for about seven years, during which time we've gone through something like five bassists.) Last night, they proved that they were more than capable of going bassless.
After an insanely tight version of Ozma's compact avant-metal opus "Let God Be Your Gardener," Dunn came out and the Houdini run-through began. The set kicked off with an ultramenacing "Hag Me" and proceeded through the album in shuffle mode, a strategy that added a key element of surprise to what could've been a mere recital. Interestingly, the band dispensed with the album's three "hits"—"Hooch," "Night Goat" and "Honey Bucket"—early, which afforded the more obscure songs a nice bit of breathing room. (I expected an agonizingly drawn-out "Night Goat," as heard on the live-Houdini album, A Live History of Gluttony and Lust, but the trio served up a concise, no-nonsense version.) The concluding drum jam on "Spread Eagle Beagle," with Dillard and Dunn joining in on auxiliary percussion, was pretty spiffy and the Kiss cover "Goin' Blind" was every bit as sublimely anguished as on Houdini, but the song that really got me was "Joan of Arc." An effective track on the record, this one was an absolute heaving monster live, with Buzz and Dunn aligning for the chthonic vocal squeal that signals the thunderous drum kick-in. The third time Crover bashed his way in, I heard someone next to me say to his buddy, "This is the heaviest thing I've ever heard in my life." I'm inclined to agree: utterly massive and gut-churning. There is no band that grinds so slowly with such a glorious sense of groove.
After "Spread Eagle," the Houdini trio offered a two-song encore (though without any sort of break) that was slightly victory-lap-ish but nevertheless awesome. First was the Lysol closer, "With Teeth," an immensely poignant tune, trudging and soulful. Then, "The Bit," Stag's Crover-penned opener and a true classic of Melvins' Atlantic period. Buzz sent everyone off with a lounge-act-style band intro, complete with a cheesy Dunn bass solo. All in all: two solid hours of artful heaviness and a stern reminder not to take these national treasure for granted ever again.
Here's my attempt at a setlist:
FIRST: [1983 material, including "Forgotten Principles" and "Set Me Straight," and, I'm pretty sure, "If You Get Bored" and "Snake Appeal."]
THEN: [Buzz/Dale duo]
1) "Second Coming"/"The Ballad of Dwight Fry"
2) "It's Shoved"
3) [slow unknown blues - cover? Crover sang; chorus sounded like "let me roll it"--anyone know what this was?]
4) "Suicide in Progress"
6) "Black Bock"
7) "Let God Be Your Gardener"
8) "Hag Me"
9) "Pearl Bomb"
11) "Honey Bucket"
12) "Night Goat"
14) "Joan of Arc"
15) "Set Me Straight"/"Deserted Cities of the Heart"
16) "Sky Pup"
18) "Goin' Blind"
20) "Spread Eagle Beagle" [Crover, Dillard, Dunn]
21) "With Teeth"
22) "The Bit"
23) [band intros/loungey outro]