Live: The Supreme Dicks Resurrect ’90s Avant-Garde at 285 Kent

03/22/2012 1:30 PM |

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The Supreme Dicks formed at Hampshire College in the early ’80s and played an integral role in Massachusetts’ fertile, lo-fi scene that followed, but few have heard of them, let alone know that the band shared a label with Sonic Youth, toured with Neutral Milk Hotel directly after the release of On Avery Island, and opened for the likes of Beck and Will Oldham. Legend has it that once, when J Mascis didn’t feel like playing a CBGB’s show, he gave the Dicks his blessing to go in his place, where they pretended to be his band, Dinosaur Jr. After all, Lou Barlow did participate as an occasional, honorary member of the Dicks.

Three decades later, the Supreme Dicks are setting up at Williamsburg’s 285 Kent Avenue, where a woman is kneeling onstage with two oranges in her outstretched hands, expectant and eyes shut, as if she is awaiting a signal from some divine power. She gestures with the oranges to different corners of the room and parts of the ceiling, and then does the same with two bananas. The band seems to be in the process of tuning their instruments or tuning themselves, and one member is pulling out a series of musical toys and testing them—a massive tuning fork, sleigh bells, a wooden slide whistle. It’s been five or six years since the Dicks played a show together, but Jagjaguwar, the label home to the likes of Bon Iver, Sharon Van Etten, Sunset Rubdown and Oneida, reissued the band’s records in one compilation called Breathing And Not Breathing last year, and later this week, the Dicks will begin a brief tour with Kurt Vile.

The Dicks’ “comeback” could not be more inexplicable, but they’re not exactly the types to follow convention. Much of the band’s performance and output has been shaped by the theories of psychoanalyst Willem Reich, who believed in a sub-cellular life-force rooted in the Freudian concept of libido. “Orgone energy,” as it is known (supposedly the conjunction of “orgasm” and “ozone”) has influenced bands like Devo, not to mention writers William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. A Supreme Dicks show is just as much expression of this concept as it is a collection of imprecise, noodling guitar-driven songs that arise from an ambient ether of tuning-up and tambourine shakings, pious mumbles and drunken confession-like narration. And yet, there’s something oddly satisfying about the imperfections in the Dicks’ playing—it almost seems like those are the elements that bind each song to itself, what keeps the music rooted in the present moment.

“Songs are what happen in between tuning,” slide guitarist Steven Shavel tells the audience, much of which is made up of original Supreme Dicks followers. Then, as the Dicks launch into a more recognizable track like “Jack-O-Lantern” the woman onstage eats a banana, puts the peel on her head, and sews an invisible tapestry of energy she says she is pulling from the people in the room. There is not an ounce of irony or sarcasm in her performance, not even when she very carefully places a small bit of orange peel on the tips of each of the Dicks’ shoes.

While new listeners might be drawn to the Supreme Dicks reissue because of an affinity for a musical scene they weren’t able to experience first-hand, the band defies the idea of time and appropriate genre altogether. These guys (and one girl) are living on another plane, one that involves fruit sacraments, energy harvesting and Reich’s theories of orgonomy. Their comeback, however, is a rare opportunity to reintroduce the band to a generation whose tastes evolved around that avant-garde, ‘90s setting, perhaps without realizing that some its most intense oddities and influence came from the Dicks’ ritualistic experiments in sound.

You can follow Sydney Brownstone on Twitter @sydbrownstone

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