courtesy of Red Sparowes.
It is always difficult deciding how to start a post-rock concert review. This massive, instrumental genre has no convenient entry-point for the uninitiated and for those who already are, the music is usually so personal that any attempt to describe a particularly beloved band will fall short of the high expectations. I say this as someone who both reads and writes a great deal about music, and happens to have some very personal opinions about my own favorite post-rock bands. It is with this in mind that I am challenged to review Sunday night’s spectacular Red Sparowes concert at Rock and Roll Hotel. So, I will take the easiest route and start from the top.
The night began a little late as openers Fang Island lived up to their Brooklyn indie-brat hype by arriving two-hours late. Darlings of SXSW 2010 and the indie-net, Fang Island have a considerable buzz about them right now, selling out venues in their own right up in NYC. It was a little confusing to me that they were tapped to open Sunday night’s show. Nothing I had read about them had indicated a musical kinship with Red Sparowes; while everything I had read portrayed Fang Island as exuberant brats set to be the next hipster bandwagon band. Fang Island’s pairing to this show began to make a little more sense as they sped through their dense and intense (and yes, exuberant) set on Sunday night. While Fang Island may be a little too sugar-sweet with their non-stop, gleeful, 5-way vocal harmonies for my tastes; their actual music was a surprisingly-complex, multi-guitar attack that came across sounding like classic era Yes gone heavy-metal and that was pretty enjoyable. I’d imagine it is Fang Island’s instrumental proficiency that got them paired with Red Sparowes and not their gimmicky vocals. Needless and sadly to say, a third of the crowd filtered out after getting a sneak-peak at the next big thing.
Next up was Boston-area, metal group, Doomriders. They took to the stage like a bolt of lightning hurled by Zeus on high, bringing an aggressive, rock-the-f*ck-out attitude that the shrinking crowd just could not match late on a Sunday night. Sure, there was plenty of head-banging and the occasional whoop of delight from the crowd, but Dave Grohl look-alike, lead singer Nate Newton’s (also of Converge) war-cries of “How the f*ck are you doing DC?!”, “We’re gonna have a good f*cking time tonight!”, and my favorite, “DC, how’s your f*cking vibe?!”, were met mostly with silence. Which is a real shame, because Doomriders totally kicked ass on Sunday night. Their set of classic heavy-metal barn-burners should have got some bodies moving, or at least some devil-horns thrown. Instead they gave it the gusto while the majority of the crowd patiently waited for the headline act. If I had my druthers, Fang Island would have got the boot and Doomriders would have played earlier when the crowd had some spark of life left in it.
By the time Red Sparowes took the stage the crowd had dwindled to less than half its original size. I was shocked. Sure it was getting later on a Sunday night, but really? Really DC? Red Sparowes’ latest album, “Fear is Excruciating But Therein Lies The Answer“, is a brilliant work that successfully moves them from the post-metal end of the spectrum firmly onto the post-rock side of things. It is an amazing evolution of their sound that is receiving rightfully-earned, critical acclaim everywhere. My pre-show research had me convinced that with reviews so supportive and a new album so damn good, Red Sparowes were poised to be the next break-out band of the genre. And perhaps they still are, you just wouldn’t know it from the small-ish crowd that remained by the time they took the stage.
Not that Red Sparowes seemed to mind, or even notice. A beautiful thing about this band, that I also noticed when I saw them in 2007, is that they are all about the music. Their albums are epic, instrumental masterpieces and their live performance requires a lot of concentration. After thanking the crowd for staying out late with them, Red Sparowes launched into a set that lasted a little over an hour featuring a couple of older tunes and a nice taste of their new album. In 2007 Red Sparowes performed with a slide-show projected over their bodies, drenching them in images of bird flocks, Chinese human-wave attacks, and trench-warfare. The slide-show obscured the band with dark hues and created an atmosphere that felt calculated and slightly oppressive. Sunday night featured a similar slide-show cloak, but the images were brighter and seemed less planned out, focusing on generic trippy videos with just a dash of politics randomly tossed in. The visual element which was so impressive in 2007 was actually a little distracting this time out.
But really, the visuals are not what get us out to rock concerts now are they? Red Sparowes opened up a little loose musically, but quickly tightened it up by the end of their opening opus. For the rest of their set the band became totally absorbed in their work generating awe-inspiring music. Each song was like a journey for the audience featuring epic highs and lows, multi-guitar tension narratives, unstoppable bass-lines, and of course their trademark element the seated, steel-guitar. New member Emma Ruth Rundle particularly shined playing dancing guitar-lines that guided the listener through her band-mates’ guitar storms all set long (let’s hear it for women in post-rock!). Greg Burns also impressed switching between his bass (for my money Red Sparowes feature some of the best bass-lines in post-rock/metal) and his steel guitar (playing hero-sections that alternated between intricate and sweeping). When the show began I actually had a brief moment of panic when I couldn’t see the steel guitar on-stage; watching Burns play the steel is both a visual and sonic highlight of Red Sparowes performances. Thankfully three songs in had Burns switching to the steel guitar and Andy Arahood taking over the bass when needed.
The songs off of “Fear is Excruciating But Therein Lies The Answer” sounded fantastic live and reinforced the new album’s evolutionary nature when played alongside their older material. Of the older songs they played on Sunday it was ‘Buildings Began to Stretch Wide Across the Sky, and the Air Filled with a Reddish Glow‘ that really hit the home-run. I think that song is the closest Red Sparowes will have to a hit song, it is just a perfectly crafted post-rock/metal song and their performance of it on Sunday, like the majority of their set, was impeccable.