Review: The Black Angels and VietNam at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge* - U2 Feedback

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Old 04-04-2007, 02:10 PM   #1
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Review: The Black Angels and VietNam at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge*

By Andy Smith, Contributing Editor

If the Black Angels were trying to throw off the unshakable notion that their music is just an irresistible flashback serum that turns the listener’s entire life into endless Hunter S. Thompson hallucinations and backwoods drunken bonfires, the band probably should not have asked VietNam to be tour-mates on their first headlining jaunt.

Given that both bands share roots in Austin, anti-establishment swagger, and influences at least as old as their parents, this teamwork makes infinite sense in a an OM-chanting meets coke-snorting sort of way. If the six Angels represent for the ‘60s, the ‘Nam boys remind us that the ‘70s came next. Music fans with cravings for either era should investigate this resurrection.

Besides becoming a bristling brother-and-sisterhood of indie-retro solidarity sealed in beer and blood, the Angels/Nam combo consistently proves why Austin needs to secede from Texas entirely. Currently on tour until April 21st, this double-billing of bluesy and ballsy beauty held its nightly ceremony of communal fuzz, stomp and growl at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge late last week.

Launching loudly at an early 10:25pm, VietNam’s stage presence confirms any rumors about these being some loose and wicked and pretty-good-looking stoner boys. Bassist Ivan Berko is a Cat Stevens/Devendra Banhart double, delicately doing his thing on the four strings. Drummer Michael Foss fills out the rhythm section with a balance between cymbal clanking detachment and downright dirty skin-punishing duty. Up front and in our face, fedora-sporting Joshua Grubb and Christ-channeling Michael Gerner seem to be battling each other for the lead singer job, swapping vocal duties and singing some songs together. For 40 minutes, VietNam waged its Dylanesque war on our ears and groins, and most of us willfully submitted to the delicious boy skanks and their deliberate time warp swagger.

After a short break and long before midnight, the lights went out again to usher in the Angels. Vocalist Alex Maas brings his enigmatic presence to the front, wearing his usual pageboy cap to contain his shaggy locks and hide his handsome face. During the long intro, he has a tambourine, but suddenly he switches to guitar. And by the looks of it, this first song requires four guitars and no bass. But switching instrumental duties is something this band does frequently and with ease, so only the most studious fan with a scorecard could keep up. I tried, but as the waves of Christian Bland’s wicked wah-wah washed over my overworked soul, I left the critic’s mind for the meandering bliss we find when we let the music “take us.” Taken indeed we were, not just by the Maas and Bland childhood partnership of crime—but by Jennifer Raines sweetly tweaking the murky and magical drone machine, by Nate Ryan ratcheting his rude bass riffs, by Kyle Hunt faithfully killing the floor tom, by Stephanie Bailey religiously obliterating us with relentlessly tribal drumming.

(From left: Stephanie Bailey (drums), Alex Maas (vocals), Nate Ryan, Kyle Hunt/Photo credit: Linzi Croy)

The 70-minute show was sick and spacey, primarily a sampler of new material and choice cuts from the amazing 2006 debut “Passover.” Such stinging, howling hymns as “The First Vietnamese War,” “Black Grease,” and “Better Off Alone” pleased the hundred folks, mostly assembled near the stage. As the set wound down, I realized it was time for the Black Angels to release some new material, such as the anticipated split EP with Vancouver’s Black Mountain.

Towards the end, we got the feeling we were at one of the band’s notorious practices conducted by candlelight where spirits get conjured by layering sounds like blankets on a sweat-lodge. This kind of experimental and loving blitzkrieg—wrought by chemistry as much as mind-altering chemicals—confirms that this six-piece of close friends and housemates have found a vocation more thrilling than anything drummer Stephanie Bailey imagined as an English major or that preacher’s son Christian Bland pondered studying advertising in grad school.

During the last year’s critical acclaim and meteoric rise from the Austin scene to scoring a spot at that world’s fair of rock called Bonnaroo, even the Black Angels have been bit by some of the cynical backlash that seems to follow any young band with some spiritual clout these days. They’ve had to deflect or ignore the assumption by some that this is a Doors and Velvet Underground cover band, even to the point of name-checking more obscure and twisted psychedelia—from the 13th Floor Elevators to the Psychic Ills, from the Brian Jonestown Massacre to the Butthole Surfers—just to make the case clear.

(From left Christian Bland (guitar) and Jennifer Raines (drone machine)/Photo credit: Linzi Croy)

But from the same lone-star region that brought America its current president, fate would have it that such a blistering bad moon of anti-war rebellion would rise from the same state. “Money and class are just a pain in the ass for me,” a blunt lyric from “Mr. Goldfinger” snarled and spit by VietNam, could be the watchword manifesto for this tour. Part of the combined, unadorned and unapologetic retro appeal is how shamelessly some band members sip and gulp their way into a sweet stupor. Nate Ryan cites as influences, “the song of the poet who died in the gutter.” Nobody told these groups that rock stars are supposed to be into yoga, health food, and business investments. Apparently, nobody involved wants to be a rock star; they’re having far too much fun to be worried about that.

By Friday night’s end, most seem to be investing seriously in a Saturday-morning hangover, which made lugging lots of gear down the front-steps at the Mercy Lounge a particular feat of fine art. Based on musical talent and reckless charisma alone, it’s clear these bands deserve any success they’ll attain. But up to this point, success—and all the stoic maturity that comes with it—does not deserve them.

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Old 04-04-2007, 03:04 PM   #2
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The Black Angels are pretty groovy.
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