Words & Images by: Alex Borsody
The Warlocks :: 08.14.09 :: The Bowery Ballroom :: New York, NY
The Warlocks have been playing for over ten years, surviving lineup changes with the one constant being frontman Bobby Hecksher. I caught the band just off the U.K./France leg of their tour, supporting their new album, The Mirror Explodes (released May 19 on Tee Pee). What's in a name? In this case, at least, something. The Warlocks was the original name for both the Grateful Dead and The Velvet Underground, two bands which helped define 1960's music yet existed at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum. The Velvet Underground was similar to The Doors in rejecting the hippie lifestyle, preferring a darker, more urban mystique. Brian Eno sums up their influence on modern music: "Despite hardly anyone buying this album [The Velvet Underground and Nico] on its release, everyone that did buy it seemed to have formed a band." On the other end, the earthy Grateful Dead were equally influential, being responsible in large part for the entire jam band scene.
So, the band name The Warlocks has quite the legacy and is evocative for many people. You only need see The Warlocks perform to notice the Velvets influence; their dark sunglasses and somber expressions bring back memories of NYC's original hipsters. Songs off this night's setlist that were most obviously influenced by VU include "Song for Nico," "Shake the Dope Out" and "The Dope Feels Good." The link can be heard clearly in their live sound, which evokes the dark, bi-polar landscapes of Live at Max's Kansas City.
The Bowery Ballroom is one of NYC's many strange and beautiful venues. There is a bar downstairs with the concert hall upstairs, and the clientele are low-key rocker types who wear a lot of black. The opening band, The Morning After Girls, put on a powerful performance, projecting a very genuine energy. The band obviously cared a lot about their live show, and the lead singer was incredibly engaged and seemed to deliver music from his own private world. The sound was a familiar indie rock formula, but darker and with greater emotion.
| The Warlocks :: 08.14 :: NYC|
The Warlocks took the stage around 11:30 p.m. and did not miss a single change or beat. Their sound was raw, and despite all my impulses to say otherwise, unpretentious. The singing was high energy, with tactful use of back-up harmonizing. The group had solid vocals, creating a sound that was very clean and exact, at times even giving things a studio mastered effect. The solos were experimental and unpredictable, and at one point I felt like one of the guitarists was channeling John Cale (the violinist/multi-instrumentalist for The Velvet Underground) with distorted and ambient screeching effects. Three guitarists, a bass player and a keyboardist are usually hard to keep so perfectly in sync.
The backstage area had a case of PBR on the floor across from a bottle of Makers Mark on the table - the art school combo. I asked the band why they chose their name and it seemed not to be too big of a deal for them, a simple nod to The Velvet Underground's inspiration. I came to the show wondering if the band had known about the Grateful Dead connection but realized how narrow my taste in music had become. I had been overtaken by Phish/Dead mania and completely forgot about my childhood hero Lou Reed. The Warlock's lead singer Bobby Hecksher is a soft spoken, androgynous character who seemed to be somewhat anxious, possibly due to the fact that he was one of the only ones not drunk in a room full of intoxicated people. As he came out from behind his dark sunglasses, I asked him if he had ever met Lou Reed. He said, "It would probably be a weird conversation."
The Warlocks and other similar sounding art rock bands are sometimes categorized as psychedelic rock. Wondering where this label came from, I asked people at the concert if they had ever done psychedelics, or if they thought that was a part of the culture surrounding the music. The resounding answer was no, so this appeared to have little to do with it. It seemed ironic on the 40th anniversary of Woodstock that a band with the Grateful Dead's original name was billed as psychedelic rock. To top it all off I had skipped a local Phish show to see something new at this concert. The band talked about being from the West Coast, where the real hippies actually listen to art rock. Today's psychedelic rock often sounds like U.K. pop bands from the 1960s, and the guy who coined the term "psych rock" came from Texas, so the roots of the sound are hard to pin down or understand anyway.
| The Warlocks :: 08.14 :: NYC|
There was an accepting and non-egotistical atmosphere at the concert. Fans were standing around looking somber and subdued, which seemed perfectly normal. No one was jumping up and down in catharsis as a musician's fingers began to start a fire on the fretboard. Because of this, The Warlocks, especially in their later work, have been described as shoegazers, a genre named after people who go to concerts and stare at their shoes while nodding to the rhythm. In the end, music is music, and by dividing genres and subcultures into target markets it only suppresses artistic expression.
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