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Old School Reunion

Can the Indie-Rock Meteors of Slint Rekindle Their Early-’90s Fire?

Sebastian Mlynarksi
GOOD MORNING, AGAIN: (from left) Slint’s Britt Walford, Brian McMahan, and David Pajo have reunited to play songs that almost no one heard the first time around.

By Michael Alan Goldberg | Posted 3/16/2005

Standing in a long line extending down Seattle’s First Avenue on Saturday, March 12, we were just hours from a fantastic encounter. That’s when the fabled Slint—14 years removed from its mysterious dissolution—was to take the stage of the Showbox Theatre for the fourth U.S. date of its improbable reunion tour.

The legend of the Louisville, Ky., band rests primarily upon one good album (1989’s Tweez, produced by Steve Albini) and one astounding, groundbreaking album—1991’s Spiderland, released shortly after the quartet broke up. Seventeen recorded songs in total (including two found on a posthumous 1994 EP). Seventeen songs embraced by music directors holed up in dingy basement college radio stations, and few others, at least at first. Seventeen songs that eventually, collectively, acted as the christening bottle for a gigantic fleet of underground and mainstream rock acts that followed, so many of which have eagerly and repeatedly cited Slint’s influence with solemn reverence over the years.

Factor in the group’s youth (all its members were mere teenagers when they made Tweez in the fall of 1987), the fact that they played fewer than three dozen shows before disbanding, the romance of a premature demise (to a level generally afforded only to artists that literally kick the bucket), and the fact that its alumni have long resisted public comment on the reasons for the split (or much else about the band’s original four-year run, for that matter), and you begin to see how Slint has been steadily pushed to the pinnacle of indie-rock mythology.

And while that virtually bulletproof rep has enabled Slint circa 2005—original members Brian McMahan (vox/guitar), David Pajo (guitar), and Britt Walford (drums/vox), plus bassist Todd Cook (replacing Ethan Buckler, who opted out of the reunion) and McMahan’s brother Michael on guitar—to sell many dates on this brief tour with very little promotion, it’s also been something of an albatross as well: How could they possibly measure up to their own legacy?

Optimists appeared to outnumber cynics, at least where I stood in line. Some talked of already being so ecstatic just knowing that they were actually about to see Slint that whether the band performed well or not was almost a secondary concern. Others sounded hopeful that reports of the group having been holed up in a practice space for months before the tour meant they’d be rust-free. And there was that guy, that grizzled indie-rock veteran, who assured all within earshot that Slint was the best live band ever, insisting he’d seen them back in the day not once, but twice. It would have been gauche to demand that he produce a weathered, walleted ticket stub as proof, but his claims made me think of the way Albini closed his review of Spiderland in a 1991 issue of Britain’s Melody Maker magazine: “Play this record and kick yourself if you never got to see them live. In ten years, you’ll lie like the cocksucker you are and say you did anyway.”

The moment of truth came at around half-past 10; the overstuffed crowd exploded with cheers of delight, relief, and semi-disbelief when the lights dimmed and the quintet finally ambled out, taking up their positions across the stage and immediately fiddling with their instrument tunings while shouts of “Slint fucking rules!” and “Thank you for coming back!” flew at them. Clean-cut and wearing a red-and-gray baseball jersey, Brian McMahan had an everydude, almost frat-boy look about him (which explains, in part, how he came to be drafted into Jimmy Eat World as a tour multi-instrumentalist some years back). The singer mumbled something into his mic about being sorry for “showing off his asscrack” as he bent over to fiddle with his rig, and, as it turned out, that was pretty much the only moment of levity the band would offer for the duration of the nearly 90-minute set. Each player bore a gravitas-laden countenance that established from the outset that this was serious business; that there would be no gregarious banter or herky-jerk stage moves, just the music that people had waited so long to hear played live.

The audience could have cared less about the stoicism when the familiar introductory guitar chimes of Spiderland’s spine-chilling “Good Morning, Captain,” Slint’s most famous number and the one that everyone surely expected to be the closer, signaled the beginning of the show. There are few musical pleasures greater than hearing each of Pajo’s guitar parts—a simple two-chord pattern, a twangier riff, harmonic scratches—arrive and recede atop Walford’s insistent tom thumps, until that moment a third of the way through when everything drops away except a brief arpeggio, and then the song is swallowed by the most perfect distortion detonation, only to pull back and allow the tune to build itself up again. Sans guitar, as he was for about half of the set, McMahan let his muttered vocals take a backseat to the music, at least until the furious climax when his screams of “I miss you” matched the intensity of the players around him.

The band took a couple of minutes to change instruments and tunings before launching into the metallic Tweez pounder “Charlotte”; such breaks occurred between every song, and some were as much as several minutes long. The crowd became more baffled with these momentum killers as the set went on, and began to chat audibly as some of the quieter songs emerged from the stoppages, including the slow, simmering “Don, Aman,” for which Walford emerged from behind his kit to sing and play guitar on a stool at center stage, accompanied by an also-seated Pajo.

During one particularly lengthy break, the crowd chatter prompted McMahan to implore everyone to “stick with us,” but clearly the band wasn’t much interested in engagement with the crowd, or even each other. Both Cook and Michael McMahan played as still as statues, often with eyes closed, yet the energy pouring out of their amplifiers was undeniable. Though nearly as motionless, Pajo was a joy to watch, especially during stunning renditions of “Breadcrumb Trail,” “Nosferatu Man,” “Washer,” and the brutally gorgeous “Ron.” Pajo plays guitar like a master carpenter builds furniture: expressionless, immersed in his work, hands fluid and purposeful through every odd chord sequence and solo, never breaking a sweat. Walford’s drumming was equally as impressive, pushing the band hard during the fervid moments, and gracefully easing back on the sticks to accommodate the more subdued passages.

It became evident as the night progressed that Slint’s mission was not to create peaks and valleys in the set as a whole, or generate a cumulative effect from all 13 songs it played—as one is generally used to at a live show—but rather to present each composition as a standalone, self-contained work of shifting dynamics, time signatures, and textures, and that would have to suffice. Controlled and focused for the duration, the quintet remained faithful to the original arrangements and maintained tight control over every entangled melody and countermelody, and every rhythmic foray, while McMahan’s narratives—often mumbled, occasionally groaned, sometimes shouted—rarely competed for dominance in the mix. Only the scorching closer, “Rhoda,” descended into feedback squall—loud as it was, it wasn’t enough to drown out the audience showing its rapturous appreciation for a band that had played spectacularly well. With nary a wave they departed the stage, it was clear there would be no encore. Slint was gone, and almost certainly for good this time.

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