Constantines/Crystal Antlers/Hey Marsailles @ Neumos, 06.15.09
Walking into a politely attentive room and seeing a band with a string section was the last thing I expected at Neumo's Sunday night. Seattle's Hey Marseilles was a bit of an odd choice on a bill full of fist-pumping, noisy rock bands, but what the band lacks in sprawling walls of distortion, they make up for in jubilant energy. Light and airy on record, Hey Marseilles comes off much more urgent in a live setting, as the energy of seven members strumming and banging on something becomes much less refined and much more raucous. Singer Matt Bishop's voice is a relaxing one, and while it lacks unique character and range, the band's dynamics more than help to make sure Hey Marseilles isn't just a good soundtrack for naps. Horns, strings, keys, and tons of extra percussion keep everyone on stage moving and hopping around, and push the band into much more memorable, visceral territory.
Crystal Antlers came out and jumped right into a fuzzy, delay soaked set of down and dirty psych rock that was more intent on setting a mood than being concise in any way. Pop songs be damned; Crystal Antlers want to explore, man. I scratched my head and felt a little lost during the first couple songs of the band's set, watching singer/bassist Jonny Bell scream like a cat in heatwhile percussionist Damian Edwards flailed around, punishing his bongos and screaming Bell's lyrics into the great microphone in the sky.
At first, I thought Edwards role in the band was a little gimmicky and didn't add a lot to the show (bongos are one of those instruments that should be used as sparingly as possible), but after a while, his contagious energy and the band's sludgy, plodding psych rock wafted through and gave the room a contact high. While most of the front few rows of people were too busy taking pictures to actually enjoy the set (seriously, people, do we need to document EVERY SINGLE SECOND of a band's set for your Flickr page?), the rest of the room was a mass of banging heads, swaying hips, and bong-hazed attention.
After a fairly quick explanation of the cause for the night's benefit (Noise for the Needy) and an awkward "post-serious-talk silence", The Constantines humbly climbed on stage in front of a surprisingly sparse Sunday crowd (why is this band not selling out Neumos?), doffed their collective cap to the crowd, and launched into a high-octane version of "I Will Not Sing A Hateful Song", with singer Bryan Webb's lanky body doing its best Robert Pollard/Roger Daltrey, complete with high kicks and monitor jumps. The band often gets Springsteen comparisions (energy, soul, gravelly voice) and Fugazi nods (absolutely unending energy, working class ethic) but the Constantines are their very own beast, building songs that somehow manage to be epic and economical.
Rolling through a set that touched on all four of their records (no new material to speak of in the set), the Constantines showed an absolute mastery of the "loud-quiet-loud" dynamic by exploring the subtleties that lie within. To take a song from a hushed, filthy atmospheric groove to a full blown explosion of sound can end up clunky and heavy handed, but the Constantines are masters of sonics, building sophisticated textures upon each other into absolute aural bliss, and then cutting out the fat to reveal some of the bare bones of their songs.
The only moment of respite in the set was the quiet sway of "Time Can Be Overcome", which served as a nice breather before the band pounded through Cons classics like "Young Lions" and "Draw Us Lines". The only disappointment of the night (aside from the room not being packed, which wasn't actually a total loss) was the abrupt ending in the Cons encore due to something on Doug MacGregor's drum kit breaking (not sure if it was the snare itself or the kick pedal?). Not that there is ever a good time for a Constantines show to end, but it was a bit heart-wrenching to know the band had another 2 or 3 songs in them ("Working Full Time" was unfortunately not part of the set). Alas, all good things must come to an end, and sometimes faulty equipment makes one of the most exciting, engaging live bands in the world today come to a grinding halt. Worse things have happened, but it was truly sad to see the steam-engine that is the Constantines be taken out before they reached the station on their terms.