Sunday, June 21, 2015

True calling: Dead Moon and Borbetomagus live

There are bands that become legend. You read of them for years, in zines and on the internet, often learning of the reverence for the thing before learning of the thing itself. I say "thing" rather than "music" because bands like this come bundled with a whole mythology. So it was with Dead Moon and Borbetomagus—two groups I'd heard about for years and barely heard before last night, when I saw them share an Issue Project Room–backed bill (also featuring a great solo appearance by J Mascis) at Pioneer Works.

Age has a lot to do with it—this underground mythology. "So-and-so have been at it since such-and-such time." All sorts of other factors play into it: biography, even graphic design. Dead Moon, founded in 1987, have it all. One of the coolest logos I—or any underground-music fan, if they're being honest—has ever seen: the screaming-skeleton/crescent-moon design with the drippy-letters font, the kind of iconography that gutter punks and black-metal heads and noise freaks all seem to agree on. The fact that the band is co-fronted by a husband-and-wife team, Fred and Toody Cole, proud grandparents who have been married for 48 years (!).

I don't think I'd heard more than a song or two by Dead Moon before last night's show. (And maybe a few by Pierced Arrows, the Coles' more current project, which is essentially the band I saw last night, as the Pioneer Works gig featured Arrows drummer Kelly Halliburton rather than Moon drummer Andrew Loomis.) Sometimes that can be a hindrance to enjoying a rock show, but that wasn't the case here. Dead Moon have a certain ceremonial way of making a venue, a night, entirely theirs.

I'd spotted the Coles hanging out on one of the upper floors of Pioneer Works during the first couple sets, scoping out the bands. Fred in this enormous black witch hat, Toody with the straggly black-and-gray hair. Once they took the stage, along with Halliburton, a tall, imposing dude wearing skin-tight St. Marks Place–style punk attire and an MC5 T-shirt (yes, it was almost too perfect…) you could tell they were lifers. Setting up, the three had an easy camaraderie, passing set lists between them, clinking beer cans, welcoming front-row fans with wide grins and uniting around Halliburton's kit for a final pre-show huddle.

Looking back, the set itself was a bit of a blur for me. It carried me along, like a drug or a magic carpet. I was transported, initiated might be the better word, into this environment that Dead Moon creates, this bubble where rock & roll is timeless and hungry and passionate and dangerous. The band has a sort of theatrical defiance to them, manifested in Toody's feral stare and imposing stage stance and in Fred's ragged, plaintive vocals, delivered, Lemmy-style, from slightly under the mic, with eyes closed and a wince of abandon and surrender and determination. But there was this other side to the trio's interaction—a camaraderie, a relishing of the preciousness of this perfect medium that they've found to express all they need to express. It was like watching a biker gang assume a tough-guy posture for a photo op, and then drop it once the camera had clicked, back-slapping and cracking up.

The music itself is a strange, primal snarl. It's a puzzle how it sounds so archaic yet so alive. I know that Dead Moon are rough contemporaries and regional cronies of the Wipers, and there's a definite kinship there, a willingness to mine a classic garagey rawk sound for its most dirgey, gloom-laden elements. Dead Moon isn't a metal band, but their songs embody this sort of exaggerated gothic drama, as well as punk's headlong drive—Greg Sage filtered through Screaming Jay Hawkins, maybe? I was surprised and impressed by the variety of the songs, and their potent anthemic quality: "54/40 or Fight," with its stop-time refrain, had me pumping my fist along after one verse/chorus cycle, and "I Hate the Blues," a dark, plodding waltz with a cyclical form that culminates with Fred yowling, "God-damn, I hate the blues!"

It was all such swagger and looseness and stylish attack. The iconography come to life: the logo, the attire (I've neglected to mention Fred's ’70s style leather vest, bolo tie and guitar strap studded with pieces of antler), the attitude. The music did it all justice. Posturing, performing, acting—it all becomes being when the music is strong, driving, dramatic enough. Alchemy occurs and you, the listener, feel like you're mainlining some old, original feeling, like punk chronicled in a Faulkner novel and reanimated before your eyes.

Or noise, for that matter. Borbetomagus, at it since ’79! I'd sampled the records, had a sense of what this trio was about. Again, the legend. The name that weird-music fans love to throw out like a gleeful curse word—like a secret handshake meaning "I'm a sonic masochist." I don't really go in much for "noise" as a style. But I felt what saxophonists Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich and guitarist Donald Miller were throwing down. Again, the physicality is inescapable: the saxists, these graying, tall, granitic men who look like types you'd encounter at happy hour in a factory-town dive bar, and the stocky, goateed Miller, with the appearance of a WFMU record collector type.

The sound was rich and painful and loud, and the performance ritualistic. Dietrich is by far the most animated, engaging in all sorts of expressionistic body language—an exaggeratedly wide-legged stance, momentary hand/arm wiggles. The two saxists tossing mics into the bells of their horns. Miller sitting there looking half-idle, strumming and using a slide and manipulating a volume pedal. At first the sound is undifferentiated—a not-unpleasant roar, a pressure on the ears. But then you start to adjust, and to align the saxists' cheek-puffing with the pulsations you're detecting, and you come to appreciate that, though amplified and distorted nearly beyond recognition, what you're hearing are predominantly breath-generated sounds. And then the presentation becomes almost wholesome. Borbetomagus is imposing but not assaultive. Noise bands often affect a sort of "vs. the audience" posture, but this set felt very private, like these guys simply need to do this thing that they've been doing for the past 35 years, and if they weren't doing it onstage, they'd be doing it in one of the members' basements on a weeknight.

Again, the legend become real. And it was warmer and more inviting than I expected. These bands are and aren't what you think they are. Longevity in underground music doesn't always mean profundity, but it does signify a kind of all-in commitment. Dead Moon and Borbetomagus believe in their respective aesthetics, and you can walk in off the street, so to speak, with no prior knowledge—or, as I did, with only a vague, sort of caricatured knowledge—and feel the love and commitment radiating out through these very different stylistic portals. It's all volume and defiance, as well as a friendly embrace of the like-minded. You feel both crushed and caressed, like you're in good, firm but loving hands. The world clicks into place, and you feel the rightness of artists doing what they were put on the planet to do, rising up to meet their true calling. And you feel reinvigorated to go out and do the same.

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