Words by: Kayceman :: Images by: Josh Miller
The Black Angels & VietNam :: 05.30.07 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA
Rock & roll is a dirty, desperate, beautiful beast. She's stolen lives and saved them. She's the blood that courses through the veins of men who rarely sleep and dream wide-awake of fantastical worlds found in fretboards and amps. There aren't too many bands around in 2007 that truly live the fabled rock & roll life but the members of Brooklyn's (by way of Austin and Philadelphia) VietNam are living the dream. But when you live this close to the edge sometimes you tumble over. VietNam fell hard on this particular evening.
Ivan Berko - VietNam :: 05.30 :: SF, CA
Everything about VietNam is a throwback to days long gone. The much talked about hair, the brilliant songwriting, the name, the delivery, and yes, the lifestyle. Watching the four-piece perform their dark-blue brand of intense, jangle-y rock at San Francisco's Independent it was bands like Velvet Underground and Exile-era Stones that blurred through the mind.
Although they kept it together for a good portion of the set, it was clear that guitarist Josh Grubb had been burning the candle pretty hard. Predominantly featuring material from the band's stellar 2007 self-titled debut, singer-guitarist Michael Gerner led the band through strong renditions of "Priest, Poet & The Pig," "Apocalypse" and a highly enjoyable "Mr. Goldfinger" with Grubb struggling to keep pace. As bassist Ivan "Sunshine" Berko and drummer Mike Foss propelled the band through thick beats with piercing shiny guitar (courtesy of Gerner), the band lumbered into an expansive "Step On Inside;" and this is when things turned bizarre.
Josh Grubb - VietNam :: 05.30
Out of nowhere, Grubb, who was barely playing his guitar at this point, dropped to one knee and started messing with his wires. He was obviously confused, but managed to hook a little hand-held Nintendo DS through his pick-ups and started rolling around on the stage pressing buttons and making noise. With Grubb on his belly things unraveled quickly. Gerner walked over and turned off Grubb's amp. Grubb turned it back on. Off, on. Off, on. Shit was getting really weird and it was clear the band was completely pissed off at Grubb. Somehow Gerner was able to keep the train rolling - dude was like a calm Buddha in the eye of the storm - but when Grubb got off the ground and tried to start playing guitar the whole thing imploded.
As the band basically performed as a three-piece, Grubb grabbed the mic and asked "This one's in 'E' right?" That was the straw that broke the camel's back. Foss dropped his drumsticks and walked off stage. Berko grabbed his guitar case and started packing up. All of this was going on as Gerner was playing guitar and Grubb played a sloppy melody. Realizing it was beyond repair, Gerner slid off stage, leaving Grubb to wallow in the mess he'd made. The house manager flashed his light and told the sound guy to kill it. Grubb sheepishly addressed the crowd: "I guess that's the end of the show," and walked off stage.
Grubb rolling on floor - Berko on bass
05.30 :: SF, CA
People stood mouth's agape as a mix of laughter and shock poured out. In my fifteen years of chasing rock & roll around the world I've never seen a bigger train wreck. As messy and unprofessional as it was, there was something mystifying about it. It's hard to understand why we're drawn to the gory aftermath of an accident and it's difficult to comprehend why we stare at the blood stained windows, yet we do. If it happened again it would be flat-out unacceptable, but for now we'll happily add it to the long list of legendary rock meltdowns.
The Black Angels :: 05.30 :: SF, CA
After the dust had settled, Austin's Black Angels came on. Featuring six people and a massive, slow-churning psychedelic warhorse of a sound, when the Angels plugged in the air became thick and heavy. Although the demeanor of the band members, the manner in which they play and the style of music they crank out is vastly different from VietNam, both bands embrace the drugged out sounds of the 60s. In fact, The Black Angels even took their name from The Velvet Underground's "The Black Angel's Death Song." But where VietNam has built a salacious reputation for walking the walk, the Angels seem to focus all their energy on the music.
Stephanie Bailey - The Black Angels
05.30 :: SF, CA
Throughout the set drummer Stephanie Bailey kept a steady, patient beat, constantly resisting the urge to let loose or force the spotlight in her direction. The same could be said about every member of the band. They play with eyes closed, hide in the shadows and often face one another. It's a ritualistic, spiritual thing not unlike a Native American tribal ceremony. There are no traditional "look at me" guitar solos, though Christian Bland is their secret weapon, capable of setting his six string ablaze when the moment calls for it.
Members trade instruments and bandleader-vocalist Alex Mass shakes a tambourine or plays guitar, channeling the music, letting it pass through him, as Jennifer Raines creates a constant, murky foundation with her drone machine/organ. When not messing with keyboards or playing guitar, Kyle Hunt hammers a giant floor tom that shook bones. This is a band that is truly greater than sum of its parts. It's not any one person or any specific sound; it's all of them working together crafting a landscape that pulls the listener in.
The Black Angels :: 05.30 :: SF, CA
The music of The Black Angels is all tonal shifts - huge movements like tides or waves across an ocean or storm clouds coming over mountains. Amidst the primal beats featured on the band's incredible 2006 debut, Passover, there were a few new songs as well as a completely freaky rendition of the Beatle's "Tomorrow Never Knows" and a stellar show-closing cover of The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog."
Turn on, tune in, drone out - it's not only the band's catch phrase, it's the mantra their music lives on.
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