Last week I stood in the same room as Steve Albini for the first time since July 24th 1987. That was at one of Big Black’s last shows, and it was tremendous, life changing even. You can read about it here and here. It’s hard not to think of that when you’re standing in a room eight thousand miles away from Hammersmith, London and twenty-two years on. The thought holds some gravity shall we say. Last night I walked into the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco to see Albini's current band Shellac as support act Arcwelder was finishing its second to last song. I wish now that I had arrived earlier, as this outfit was kicking some ass.
Shellac came onstage not long after that and booted a fair amount of posterior itself. The stage set-up was a no frills affair, as befits Albini’s view of, and approach to, music: there were no colored lights, and the drummer, Todd Trainer, had a sparse kit just slightly in front of Albini and bass player, Bob Weston. Just as an aside it’s pretty impressive to watch three guys who were all on Homestead’s Wailing Ultimate compilation, Albini was in Big Black, who contributed the electric “Il Duce,” Trainer was a member of Breaking Circus, whose excellent “Song Of The South” was featured and Weston was bass player with Volcano Suns, and their “White Elephant” features one of the catchiest choruses on the album as well as the most abrasive and exhilarating guitar line.
So you got some serious staff for a serious night. And a serious night it was, Albini with his guitar strapped around his waste — as it was on that night in ’87 — Trainer alternating between pummeling the drums in a primal way to holding down tricky and involving grooves that would befit a jazz drummer, and Weston playing sparse but thick and deep bass lines. Albini didn’t say a lot but Weston was a hoot, telling off color jokes (my favorite was “What’s the difference between a hard-on and a corvette?” “I don’t have a corvette.”) and fielding questions from the crowd between songs. But that’s not to say that the night was frivolous all round, hardly, not with Albini at the controls. Shellac are not a light option, their subject matter is heavy, as are their sounds and all this is set on top of awkward time signatures, which might have some saying, “oh that’s so Math rock,” but hey, let’s just stick to the way the band describes themselves, “a minimalist rock trio.”
Minimal indeed, and though minimalism in the electronic world has become so glaringly tedious, in the world of rock, with musicians who can play and have performed for decades it takes on a whole new meaning entirely. Shellac proved this in spades last Thursday night with songs like “Crow” from their debut At Action Park, and “The End Of Radio” from 2007’s Excellent Italian Greyhound. The crowd were there to see Shellac and to bask in the presence of legends, legends who still speak to them, and don’t patronize and who carry an angst that seems to be missing everywhere.
At the end of the night I approached the stage as Steve Albini was putting away his aluminum guitar (a Travis Bean guitar might I annoyingly add) and said “This is the first time I’ve seen you on a stage in 22 years.” He walked over and said “Oh yeah, where was that?” “At the Clarendon in London in ’87.” There was a look of genuine amazement on his face, he was gobsmacked as the English might say, and then he said, “That’s a long time ago,” and shook my hand. I’m not in the habit of talking to performers — let them perform and enjoy — but that night so long ago is pivotal in my life and it was important to mention it to the guy who drove a lot of the power in that room that night. And it was great to see that he hadn’t lost his edge — nor had his bandmates — merely honed it into a new and vital form. Great gig!
Shellac - Crow mp3