Friday, October 1, 2010

Shellac : Live at the Bell House

Initially published here

When I told a friend I was leaving to go see Shellac play in Brooklyn, he rolled his eyes and said “Have fun. Cuz you know Shellac is all about fun!” Now, I appreciate why he would say this. Shellac plays an extremely aggressive, challenging brand of rock ’n’ roll. You’d be excused for thinking that their live show would amount to a test of wills between band and audience. How much pummeling could you take before yelling “Uncle!” and retiring to the bar?

In reality, Shellac’s live show is decidedly more user friendly than their albums. Dare I say they are … even … maybe … kinda fun? Maybe it was everything coming into alignment. Despite being sold out, the venue was not uncomfortably crowded. The crowd was attentive and enthusiastic but never crossed over into obnoxiousness, despite many opportunities during the band’s infamous Q&A sessions (Shellac takes questions from the audience several times during their set and the band’s rejoinders to even the most dopey comments were almost always witty, on point and remarkably quick).

It didn't hurt that the sound at the Bell House was excellent, with every instrument in sharp focus. I marveled at how clean Steve Albini’s guitar sound actually is. As “heavy” as it can be perceived in the context of the band’s songs, his actual set-up was shockingly devoid of distortion most of the time. So much so that when he did stomp on a pedal or two the impact was exhilarating. Bob Weston’s bass carries much of the melodic load leaving Steve to fill-in the picture with bursts of noise or quick flurries of simple, melodic riffing (they often sound like nothing more, or less, than ZZ Top re-imagined by MIT scientists). And Todd Trainer … well, there is a reason his drum kit is situated front and center. He is a marvel to watch; his body a mass of sinew and twitching muscle. He has an explosive power unmatched by just about any other drummer working today, but his real skill lies in his ability to show restraint. Like Albini, his impact is felt much harder by knowing just when and how much to pull in on the reins.

We got some of the “hits” and we got some new tunes, which was encouraging. This is a band that has put out a paltry four full-lengths in 16 years. Instead of touring, they do small clusters of shows, usually centered around a festival or event (in this case, they had just played the All Tomorrow’s Parties fest in upstate NY). They’ve made it clear that they consider their band a passion, not a career. And as such, I feel like I can’t waste any future opportunity that arises to see this rare bird.

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