Wednesday, September 01, 2010
The chase: craw live at the Grog Shop
[Flyer by John G.]
Every serious music lover has that one show they spend their whole life chasing, the concert they've built up in their mind as the greatest thing they ever saw. For me it was about 15 years ago. It was either ’95 or ’96 and I saw a Cleveland band called craw [sic] play in my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. Their records were my chief obsession at that time, and the show confirmed what I'd hypothesized: that this was the best band I'd ever heard. As a devout teenage metalhead, I had grown weary of the genre's macho, dumbed-down attitudes (these were the days before "indie metal," before intellectual cred was pretty much a given within the style). In craw I found the darkness and ruthless complexity I craved, along with vocals/lyrics that seemed like the ravings of a mad scientist. Live, everything was amplified, right there in front of my impressionable face: It was like being attacked by geniuses.
So I chased craw for the remainder of their touring existence, catching something like six more shows over the next couple of years. I moved to New York and craw stopped touring. Eventually Joe McTighe, the lead singer who had so impressed me, left Cleveland, and the band quietly went extinct. By this point, the early 2000s, craw's prog-punk ethos, grafting the former style's technicality onto the latter's brutality, had become a "thing" in earnest, a genre unto itself. I couldn't relate to bands like Dillinger Escape Plan, but after a few years, when my friend Joe and I started a band called Stay Fucked, I realized that the prog-punk ethos was percolating in my backyard. So both as a musician and as a fan, I continued to chase the idea of craw.
Things got interesting around 2005. Stay Fucked was progressing and we met folks from all these other bands who had a stake in the prog-punk thing: Mick Barr, Zs, Behold… the Arctopus, Friendly Bears, Time of Orchids. We'd already known the members of Timber, Birthday Boyz and Snack Truck from college, and then we came upon others of our tribe: Archaeopteryx, Yukon, Animal, Maw, Clan of the Cave Bear, Dysrhythmia. (In 2006, I helped organize a Philadelphia festival—which bore the same name as this blog—to showcase some of this talent.) Within this community, I was a tireless evangelist, handing out burned copies of craw records like bibles. Some listened and caught the fever, but by this point, there was no craw to see live, no way to really ground the myth in fact.
Suddenly, though, there was a craw to see live. A month or so ago, I got word that the band would reunite for a one-off Cleveland show, a benefit for a friend (photographer and longtime scene booster Karen Novak). As I'd expected, Joe McTighe was not coming back to town, so the other three members of craw's final lineup (guitarist Rockie Brockway, bassist Zak Dieringer and drummer Will Scharf, the latter also of Keelhaul) would play as a trio, with Brockway doubling on vocals. I was skeptical on the latter front: McTighe's strategy had been to lay slippery, chaotic patterns over the musicians' rigorous tech-rock grid, and the idea of trying to play and sing craw at the same time seemed impossible.
Doubts or no, I knew this was something I needed to see. So this past Monday, a decade and a half after that initial Kansas City experience, here I was again chasing craw. Friends, family and fiancée all thought I was a little nuts—flying to Cleveland overnight for a show—but on the other hand, they all knew me well enough to understand that when it came to craw, I wasn't going to compromise.
I got into town at about 5:30 p.m. My kind host was my friend John, a keeper of the prog-punk flame who plays in the aforementioned Clan of the Cave Bear. He's one of the only other people I know who seems perfectly content to talk about craw (or any other extreme band you might fancy) ad infinitum. We chilled out at his place for a few minutes, grabbed a bite and then headed over to the Grog Shop, a modest-sized bar/venue (NYC people: think of Mercury Lounge) where the show was going down.
The crowd was sparse. As a pilgrim, I wanted to pay my respects to the band. Will knew I had planned on coming, but he still seemed a bit surprised that I had actually gone through with it. Rockie and Zak were shocked as well, but happy to see me—it had been something like eight years since I'd seen or talked to either one. It's always a little weird playing the role of the obsessive fan, but in my experience, if you're in a situation where you can actually converse freely with your idols, you should. And no matter how embarrassing it seems, you should tell them how much their work means to you—as I've been doing with these guys since I was a teenager. With all that out of the way, we got some good catching up in before the show. I gave Rockie and Zak some STATS CDs.
After the opening band finished, I grabbed a spot right at the front of the stage (not that there was much competition). I had planned on taking some Flipcam video, but I concluded that I didn't want to worry about documentation while watching the band. John's girlfriend, Leia, kindly offered to tape a few songs for me, but then we realized that like eight other people were filming the whole show. (I'll be sure to post some links as soon as the videos appear—I'm guessing you'll see a few on this YouTube channel.) Will had rattled off the song selection to me when Keelhaul played NYC earlier this month, but when John and I spied the set list, we were psyched to see "STRONGEST," signifying "Strongest Human Bond," one of the best songs from my favorite craw album, Lost Nation Road, and a clear favorite among my various friends who love the band.
Suddenly the sticks were clicking and it was on. I think I half-expected some kind of heavenly trumpet fanfare, but nope, this was a rock band playing to a thin crowd in a suburban-ish bar on a weeknight, a scenario that was no doubt playing out concurrently at thousands of other venues across the country. It took a bit for the magic to warm up: Opening track "Caught My Tell" (drawn, like most of the set, from craw's final album, Bodies for Strontium 90) sounded a little wobbly, and Rockie clearly had his hands full with the guitar-vocal doubling. (Overall, though, Rockie handled the challenge well: He didn't attempt to mimic Joe's delivery; instead, his hoarse, shouted style was a respectable placeholder.) "Strongest Human Bond" came next and things started to gel. The old chills brewed up inside during the midsong breakdown ("20 years later my twin is passed out on the couch"). By the third song, "Space Is the Place," I was right where I wanted to be. There were only a few of us up near the stage, including John, but were all zeroing in on the same phenomenon: that euphoric rush of volume and crazed inventiveness that only craw delivers. These songs are so ingrained in my head and heart that for all their complexity, they sound absolutely logical, absolutely fluid. I danced and screamed along.
However easy it is to dis the nostalgic impulse in general, it's ridiculous to resist it on a personal level. Specific things light us up when we're young and nothing else but those specific things can truly complete our circuits when we're older. We stay open-minded, we stay grounded, we stay rational and sane, and new stimuli flood in, but there's a unique joy that comes when we're in the presence of the old stimuli, when we chase our aesthetic ideal and there it is, intact, waiting for us.
The second half of the set is a blur to me—I was so out there and in the moment and happy. I distinctly remember the stunning skeletal-funk bass-drums breakdown in "Unsolicited, Unsavory" and how it grooved harder than it does on the record. I remember the glorious turbulence of "Divinity of Laughter" and the sleek, serrated cadences of "Is It Safe?" I remember when a fellow craw lifer—I only caught his first name, R.J.—came up onstage to help Rockie sing the classic "405" (a creepy rant about a woman who falls victim to a stalker then survives a plane crash), and how Will (who had not played on the recorded version of the song) spiced up the ominous ending with a backbeat. And I remember that I didn't want it to end.
Afterward I got to catch up some more with Zak. We went through a little craw history, talked about our mutual loves of Rush and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and filled each other in on our extramusical lives. I have no idea when I'll see him again, or if I'll ever see craw play again, but this particular chase had been worth it. The 32-year-old me shook hands with the 16-year-old me and said, "You were right."
The full set list from Monday's craw show at the Grog Shop in Cleveland:
Caught My Tell
Strongest Human Bond
Space Is the Place
Unsolicited, Unsavory (a.k.a. "Dubby")
Divinity of Laughter
Is It Safe?