The setlist at Glasslands last night looked promising. Widowspeak did their weird, Lynchian shoegaze thing well and Yellow Fever put on an especially tight, 50s pop-influenced Halloween-y grunge show. Dirty Beaches was something to look forward to too—especially after hearing haunting, rockabilly songs off his upcoming Badlands album, and the fact that he received a glowing Pitchfork "rising" status. But live, Alex Zhang Hungtai channeled the spirit of Charlie Sheen. After witnessing this set of distorted shouting, misguided crowd-surfing and New York fault-finding, it looks like Dirty Beaches might just be too big for his beaches. Sorry Pitchfork.
There are a lot of bands worshiping the 90’s these days. But there’s good reason Widowspeak has been the one to get the Mazzy Star and My Bloody Valentine comparisons—they’re a solid trio and faithful to their influences. Though their music mostly relies on the nuance of singer Molly Hamilton’s soft, lackadaisical vocals, what makes them weird and slightly savory is Rob Thomas’ (no, not that Rob Thomas) twangy, psyched-out surf-rock ‘lectric guitar diddling on top. Thomas played around with just the right amount of discord and anticipation to trip and tease around Hamilton’s voice—after all, her sexy, shamanistic mumblings sometimes sound a like a Vicodin-induced lullaby. Drummer Michael Stasiak kept the beat forceful but spare, at times beating a tambourine to his chest, eyes shut tight. And then there were moments where each musician seemed to transcend to their own special Widowspeak-y place—somewhere ghoulish, delicate, Lynchian—or maybe just to a fictionalized, overcast Tacoma, Washington, where Hamilton and Stasiak are originally from. Their best songs of the night were a cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” and the band’s single, now out as a 7”on Captured Tracks, “Harsh Realm.”
Jennifer Moore of Texan duo YellowFever is a goddess in the form of a Buddy Holly look-a-like. She sounds like the deepest voice of the Andrews sister plucked out of a USO show, given some jungle juice and introduced to alt-rock. Drummer and synth-player Adam Jones keeps his drumming tight, sophisticated and succinct, and sometimes the two harmonize together. Their sound is difficult to describe—part poppy rockabilly guitar riffs, part Beat Happening grungy strumming, part indie scat and part Halloween party compilation disc (in the way that they use keys). But together they articulate something entirely precise and unique—Moore’s voice eeking out a ghostly vibrato or jumpy, breathy high note over bass-like walk-ups. And they get jazzy without getting distant—somehow Yellow Fever always comes back to a catchy motif. One of the catchiest tunes they played was “Psychedelic,” in which the chorus went “Why won’t you recognize how psychedelic I am/and love me?” repeatedly. And it’s super neat when Moore uses a glass slide on a guitar laid out on her keyboard to mirror the radical vocal jumps in pitch.
If you thought Charlie Sheen had the monopoly on cracked-out hubris these days, you should have seen Dirty Beaches’ set at Glasslands last night. At first, it was subtle: Alex Zhang Hungtai’s flannel shirt sleeves rolled up to t-shirt length just enough to reveal some rad arm art, the slicked back coiffe just so. And it’s not like it wasn’t reflective of the audience—Glasslands was stuffed with a particularly beautiful crowd last night, all appropriately disheveled in a chic, self-congratulating way.
But then he picked up the mic—instrument of destruction—and began to shout through heavy reverb and distortion. It’s not everyday that you see someone really put gusto into a performance, try something new. But then he continued to shout. Incessantly. Over two looping chords.
Hungtai had the Elvis leg twitch down. But when he started playing a pre-recorded backing track to shout over for his second song, it felt like an Elvis-impersonator karaoke session turned irrepressible nightmare. And as the set progressed, it became clearer and clearer that there was little difference between Dirty Beaches and the mentally-ill shouters you might find on your daily train commute. Not in terms of quality of content. Maybe it's just that Dirty Beaches had a microphone and a stronger jaw line than most.
Credit where it's due: His recordings are great. His little yips and howls, the moves, the swagger, the whole rockabilly homage is fresh, but the increasing anger and paranoia in his singing seemed just a little too fake, too constructed live. And then, in the second song, without so much of a hint, he did it: like an overexcited lemming, he threw himself into the unsuspecting audience, guitar and all. And a few people were definitely unhappy about it. When Hungtai clambered back up onstage, he apologized—but for starting so late. Then he promised to make it up. “Play!” shouted a heckler. “Just you wait, honey,” he replied.
The third song was actually pretty good, mostly because you could kind of make out what Hungtai was saying. But before playing the next song, he asked, “Can I get a drink up here? A Jameson on the rocks?” He waited for the drink to be made and delivered. “You guys are gonna be the first crowd to buy my LP,” he told us in between sips. “You get first dibs.”
A Johnny Cash cover and another crowd-surf later, Hungtai got back up onstage and began to shout, “Let’s see what you got, New York! Let’s see what you got! Let’s see what you—“ The mic cut out. Hungtai wandered around the set aimlessly for a few seconds before complaining that “New York fucking sucks, dude. You can’t afford fucking power strips?”
But Hungtai combed his hair back, Kenickie greaser-style, assuming his slightly tense, antagonistic relationship with the crowd again. He played another song, then asked, “You guys really want another?” The crowd hooted and hollered—apparently they did. “This is the fifth encore that’s happened on the tour so far,” Hungtai confessed. (Someone behind me asked his friend, “Don’t you need to go offstage and then come back on for it to be considered an encore?”)
Hungtai invited his “tour family”—a ragtag group of friends and roadies—onstage for the last song. “What key are we in?” one asked. “I don’t know. Just do whatever,” he replied. Here, Dirty Beaches crowd surfed again, this time making his way up to the second level of Glasslands. Perched and swaying on the railing for a tantalizing minute, somehow he eventually made his way back down. At least Dirty Beaches took his crowd surfing seriously. But you decide: Winning?