Words by: Alex Proctor | Images from: www.myspace.com/birdsofavalon
Birds of Avalon :: 04.01.08 :: Hemlock Tavern :: San Francisco, CA
Having just been tapped to open for The Raconteurs after previously supporting mind-expanding merrymakers, The Flaming Lips, Birds of Avalon are a band that you won't be able to catch in rooms as small as the one they played April Fool's Night for much longer. They headlined a three band bill on the first of two nights at the Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco that presented three very different faces of guitar rock.
First up were the punishing stoner-metal riffs of Glitter Wizard, followed by the dirty punk of Hank IV and, of course, prog rock up-and-comers, Birds of Avalon. Aside from quality, the common thread between these very different bands was something attributed to the Hemlock itself: noise. The music venue at the Hemlock is a tiny backroom where loud is law. Thanks to the skill of these three bands, the intense volume didn't drown out the music, and while the crowd fought the urge to buy venue-supplied earplugs, each group rocked the stage in their own style.
Glitter Wizard (currently right behind Lightspeed Champion and Duran Duran Duran on my list of best band names) kicked the evening off with a barrage of stony riffs that would make Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) proud. Their shirtless lead singer, Wendy Stonehenge, growled and gnashed his teeth with abandon and the band backed him up with thunder.
They were followed by Hank IV, who laid down authentic old-school punk with a rockabilly influence, played by dudes who look like they're about the right age to remember the grimy S.F. punk scene of the mid-70s but might also be more at home drinking beers and watching the game (or substitute teaching your high-school math class) instead of rocking your face off. If it weren't for their amazing, manic lead singer, Bob McDonald, that is.
Seeing McDonald onstage was like having the creepy guy in line next to you at the post office suddenly start howling like a cross between David Yow (The Jesus Lizard, Qui) and Frank Black (The Pixies). It was truly frightening, uncomfortable to watch AND impossible to look away from. Check out this guy's dance moves! Even in a full leg brace, he herked and jerked like a Pentecostal preacher about to start speaking in tongues. Chris Portfolio's rock-solid bass playing provided an anchor for catchy songs with darkly humorous lyrics. There was never a dull moment in their highly entertaining set, which closed with "Got Got," a fist-pumping, shout-a-long thrasher inspired by the character of criminal troublemaker Omar from The Wire. Sufficiently loosened up by McDonald's performance, the crowd was ready for the main event and eagerly filled the room in anticipation of the headliner.
Birds of Avalon
The first thing you might notice about North Carolina's Birds of Avalon is their female guitarist, Cheetie Kumar, and you wouldn't be blamed for staring. She rocks but the real story here is the band - psychedelic hard rockers that manage to wear their influences on their sleeves without sounding derivative.
As soon as they came on the light show started, full of trippy, lo-fi effects that reflected the band's live sound even before the twin Les Paul assault of Cheetie and her husband, guitarist Paul Siler, had begun. Lead singer Craig Tilley handled the melodic turns of slower, spacier number "Shakey Tiger" with aplomb, while the rhythm section of Scott Nurkin (drums) and David Mueller (bass) took apart the complex "Earthbound" and put it back together again. Featuring a triumphant guitar line, technical drumming and lyrics about magic, shadows and "standing on the verge of a void," this song encapsulates the Bird's sound, which combines the big, hooky riffs of The Who with the proginess of King Crimson and the rock-god aspirations of Led Zeppelin.
"Measure of the Same," the opening track from the band's new EP, Outer Upper Inner, was one of their most immediately magnetic, recalling Cream's heavier moments of advanced garage psychedelia. True to these late-60s roots, the new album was recorded using analog four-track equipment, but their style is not limited to simple revivalism. Both the Smashing Pumpkins outro in "Earthbound" and the stop-on-a-dime time changes and punky sound of "The Reeds" lent a contemporary feel to Birds of Avalon's performance, with the latter tune perhaps the fiercest song of the night.
The band brought enough originality and skill to what is essentially a classic rock format to remind us of why those songs are classics in the first place. Although the set was a bit short at just over an hour, die-hard fans could take comfort in the knowledge that Birds of Avalon would be back the next night to do it all again.
Outer Upper Inner, out now on Volcom Entertainment, is currently streaming in its entirety at www.birdsofavalon.com
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