Get Yr Freak On
2001: The night two Brians saved my musical life
In 2001, music seemed kinda done to me. Or maybe I was done. Either way, it was kind of a problem.
I had been a music obsessive since elementary school, spending hours listening to my dad's Allman Brothers albums and old Chess Records LPs and studying the sleeve notes like they contained the secrets of life. I followed a typical path that wound through the now-quaint institutions of classic rock, punk rock, "college radio," fanzines, record-store clerking, and on through various underground and overground sounds, guitar-based and otherwise, picking up something remarkably like a career as someone who wrote about music along the way. By the time I moved to Baltimore in 1995 to write about music for City Paper, the hegemony of six-strings and amps was eroding thanks to the rise of electronic/dance music, but by the '90s even that seemed to be waning, at least in Next Big Thing terms. There was still plenty of music in Baltimore to get excited about, from the insular world of club to the early heyday of the Red Room to a minor explosion of indie-ish WTF (e.g., Oxes), but I was beginning to have trouble getting excited about any of it. I still liked, even loved, a lot of what I was getting to hear, but it seemed like I had kind of heard it all. Personally, and to an extent professionally, it was a drag.
Maybe I was jaded, or just tired. I was in my early 30s and had been writing about music as some part of my job for more than a decade. I had been married for a few years, and we were expecting our first child. Although I still made it out to shows regularly, it was getting harder to leave the house at 10 or 11, come home smelling like an ashtray at 2:30, and feel like a human being the next day. It happens to the best of us.
I can't remember which I heard about first that June, Lightning Bolt or Tarantula Hill. I know the first time I heard of them together was in a cryptic e-mail alerting me to the fact that the former, a band from Providence, R.I., was playing the inaugural show at the latter, a new space on the west side. What I'd heard about Lightning Bolt seemed too good to be true: a power duo of noisy art/rock dudes who earned their high-powered name live. What I'd heard about Tarantula Hill was that it was run by a couple named Twig and Carly who had moved to Baltimore from even more urban-exotic Flint, Mich., or at least that's what I was told. Even stranger, they didn't relocate here to go to MICA or work at Hopkins. They moved here to do this--make music and art and put on shows. In 2001, years before the Wham City deluge of eager arty new Baltimoreans, that was a bit of a mind-blower.
I found my way to West Pratt Street on that warm Wednesday evening and spotted an open door in the alley surrounded by a handful of folks in shorts and ratty T-shirts. Inside and up the stairs, the space was old and beaten-up, with grimy wooden floors and walls dotted with patchy plaster. There was a turntable spinning in a corner beneath a dim light--one of the few--and speakers throbbed with some sort of bass-heavy alien electro. I located Twig Harper and asked him what he was playing. Either my question got lost in the throb or the answer got lost somewhere behind his slightly dazed eyes, but I never found out.
I was covering the show for the paper, so I actually jotted down notes when two people in neon masks--Neon Hunk, according to the hand-written flier--got behind a keyboard and a drum kit in a corner of the room. To this day I'm especially proud of having described the singer's vocals as sounding "like a kidnap victim chewing her way through a gag," because that is precisely what she sounded like. The next electronics-heavy duo, Spread Eagle, featured Twig's partner Carly Ptak (who would go on to contribute art and writing to CP on occasion) and a collaborator who wound up rolling her porcelain-white naked ass around on the blackened floor as she sang/intoned.
By the time the two unassuming dudes named Brian who make up Lightning Bolt walked over to their respective mammoth bass stack and mismatched pile of scabby-looking drums, the temperature in the room had climbed about 20 degrees, thanks to the early June heat rising through the building, the body heat from the maybe two dozen spectators and flailing performers, and heaps of humming electronics and amplification. In fact, as an old friend likes to say, it was hotter than a blistered dick in a wool sock, with the whiff of sour pits starting to rise beneath the smell of baked wood and plaster dust. Sweat poured down faces throughout the room as the Mutt and Jeff mismatch of Lightning Bolt's Brians started to play.
"Started to play" makes it sound like there was a tidy count-off and some music, when in fact it was like being pitched into a wind tunnel, the furious blare of Brian Gibson's overdriven bass amp and the continuous fusillade of Brian Chippendale's clattering attack pushing the remaining air out of the room. And it didn't let up: The drums pounded like Slayer's Dave Lombardo gone art-school spasmo as each juddering riff and thudding melody switchbacked into the next, rock music as physical experience, as endurance test for band and listeners alike. At one point Chippendale stopped playing, stalked off through the shallow ring of bystanders ringing his kit, only to return dragging an enormous industrial floor fan that he pointed toward the drum stool before picking up his sticks and setting off again.
There are lots of reasons for me to remember 2001. I can still clearly recall the Tuesday morning I came into the paper a little early to help finish up that year's Best of Baltimore issue only to hear amid the deadline rush a curious news item about a plane flying into the World Trade Center--and then later another. I have vivid memories of the November Friday night and Saturday morning I spent staring at the orange streetlights beaming weakly through thick fog from the 16th floor of Mercy Hospital as we waited to meet my son. Seeing Lightning Bolt at Tarantula Hill in no way compares with those events in the grand scheme of things, but the memory is just as powerful, as was the effect on me, in many ways. As someone excited about music and its possibilities, as someone convinced of the absolute power, undoubted good, and limitless horizons of transcendence through noisy abandon, as someone capable of being flat-on-my-ass surprised and delighted, I was reborn. And I wasn't the only one, I think.
I haven't mentioned Forcefield yet. Another Providence/Fort Thunder group, it played before Lightning Bolt, although "performed" is probably a better word, since its set mostly consisted of a coupla guys wearing tight crown-to-waist multi-colored psychedelic knitwear--faces completely covered--dancing and wrestling on the floor to a crude techno pulse. But at one point Forcefield screened a video in which the psychedelic-knitwear creature-dudes make their way down what looks like a dank sewer tunnel and, by torchlight, discover what looks to be a synthesizer lying athwart their path. They stare and tentatively touch it, seemingly awed, or maybe scared, like the apemen at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then they start jumping on it, smashing it in joy or rage or maybe some of both in the flickering, subterranean new beings rejecting and remaking an old world.
In hindsight, so much of the energy and creativity and no-one's-looking-so-we-can-do-what-we-want spirit of Baltimore's underground renaissance over the course of the '00s is embodied in that image and in that night--at least for me.
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