As Jacob Gellman noted in his review of How To Dress Well, Neumos always smells like hotdogs. Capitol Hill’s central street dog stand sits right outside, and until it finally gets cold enough to close the doors, I think every single show at Neumos will be tinged by this sickening, beautiful scent.
Dreamsalon was up first; I can’t tell you much about them, other than that their drummer followed in Tom Krell’s footsteps by remarking on the hot dog smell. There’s really just not much to say about unremarkable garage-rock in 2014.
Constant Lovers, on the other hand, were pretty much the shit. I had done a small amount of digging on them pre-show, and read that Helms Alee frontman/custom amp builder/all-around-badass Ben Verellen had sat in on drums for their most recent record, and I was beyond thrilled when he sat down behind the kit. (I had also read the press release for their new record, Experience Feelings, which describes the experience of a street dog turning into a talking king cobra. Hot dogs were a theme this evening.) If Verellen was anywhere near as good at drums as he is at shredding (or as Helms Alee drummer Hozoji Matheson-Margulis is) then this was going to kill. And it did kill. I’m not quite sure how to categorize Constant Lovers— elements of both punk and metal floated through their relentlessly heavy sound, which I’m tempted to just call “hard rock,” shitty connotations be damned. Charismatic frontman Joel Culpin shrieked his head off like Travis Morrison after singing nothing but “Girl O’Clock” for a week and being raised on Taking Back Sunday, bassist Gavin Tull-Esterbrook played through one of Verellen’s massively loud amps for one of the most sickening bass tones this side of The Jesus Lizard’s David Wm. Sims, and Verellen’s drumming really elevated what could’ve been a sort of dull retread of the Lizard and other pigfuck classics to a new plain by bringing in the experimental metal influences of his main act. All this said, the best member of the band might have been the drunk guy on the balcony, who, during each of the pregnant pauses of “Snickerdoodles Are The Best Cookies” screamed a perfectly timed “YEAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!” It was the right reaction.
Constantines didn’t say anything about the hot dogs. They didn’t need to say much—they knew that this show mattered enough to the people in attendance that they needn’t pander or banter or really do anything at all other than play the shit out of their songs. What was surprising, and depressing, is how small this crowd was. When I read that the Cons were playing Neumos, I was shocked, because the venue seemed a bit small to contain what I thought would be the rabid throng clamoring to see the legendary Canadians, reunited after four years, at their first and possibly only Seattle show on this new run. But hardly anyone was there that night: the crowd wasn’t even dense enough to keep the lone crowdsurfer from falling on his head.
Maybe this is attributable to Constantines’ kind of difficult-to-classify sound, and harder-to-classify legacy. I would describe them as a rock ’n roll band if the first song on their first record didn’t willfully proclaim “We want the death of rock ’n roll.” Plus the fact that their clear Fugazi influences started to wane after the first couple records, as their affection for Neil Young grew, and how all the while their salt-of-the-earth aesthetic and lyrical sentiment obscured the fact that these were incredibly smart musicians who weren’t necessarily interested in what was most simple and direct. That had sort of changed by 2009, when they released the ham-fisted Kensington Heights and proceeded to call it quits. In the interim, the post-hardcore influence that they so skillfully buried on Constantines, Shine A Light, and Tournament Of Hearts was picked up by a whole host of musicians, just demonstrating that the Cons were, like most great bands, ahead of their time. That their influence doesn’t directly show on bands like METZ, or Pissed Jeans, or even Constant Lovers is probably due to the weird amalgam of intricate rhythms and heart-on-sleeve, anthemic lyrics. Where these younger bands operate in somewhat disgusting irony half the time, Constantines are never, ever snide.
They opened the set with the best five-song lead-in I’ve seen this side of The National —“Draw Us Lines,” “Nighttime/Anytime (It’s Alright),” “Young Offenders,” “Hotline Operator,” and “Soon Enough.” “Draw Us Lines” is such a barnstorming, perfect opener that I felt sure they’d hold off on some of their more blazing tracks, but then the pristine segue into the blistering “Nighttime/Anytime” just ramped up everyone’s excitement even more.“Soon Enough” was the first Constantines song I fell in love with, and seeing it live in all its tender glory was one of the more beautiful experiences I’ve had recently. There were large masses of the crowd who sang every word of these first five songs with their fists raised in triumph, and it’s not hard to see why. These guys played like younger men at the top of their game, Bry Webb’s voice was just as harsh and gorgeous as it’s ever been, and it struck me that it would’ve been hard to say a Cons show ten years ago what really all that much better than this.
Sonically, the Cons were 100% on. Drummer Doug MacGregor has always impressed on record, and here he definitely stood out, working trick rhythms into anthemic backbones. The dueling guitars of Webb and Lambke were mixed nicely, while also allowing for some emphasis on Will Kidman’s keyboard work, which often gets buried on record. Bassist Dallas Wehrle held down the fort, workmanlike and stalwart.
After that five-star five-song intro (which I was not surprised to see has been their lead-in for pretty much every date on this tour), they started to trail off into slightly less thrilling territory. Kensington material like “I Will Not Sing A Hateful Song” was definitely better in the live setting, but still so painfully sincere in that distinctly Canadian way that I had trouble getting into it. They also opted to include a few Steve Lambke-led numbers, like Shine A Light’s sole throw-away, the hackneyed “Scoundrel Babes.” They even doubled down with Lambke’s Kensington joint “Shower Of Stones.” (I personally think every Cons album would be better off without it’s obligatory Lambke-led tracks.) What was remarkable to me was how stoked the rest of the crowd was on all of these songs I felt to be so obviously lesser material. It certainly increased my enjoyment of them to be surrounded by people for whom these songs were anthems.
They hit several more fantastic tracks in this midsection—“Insectivora,” “Young Lions,” “Shine A Light,” and “On To You,” which they dedicated to Sub Pop, who released their first three records. The main set ended with a perfect segue from “Tank Commander” into “Arizona,” the opener to their first album, completing a nice little circle. After a comically short interlude (I swear, these get shorter every show I go to), they came back for a strikingly burly rendition of “Lizaveta,” which was awesome, and closed out the night with Kensington closer “Do What You Can Do,” which was certainly appropriate, if not as fantastic as “You Are A Conductor” or “Little Instrument” might’ve been.
There’s no indication whether the Cons will be making another record; this tour is meant to coincide with the 11-year anniversary reissue of Shine A Light. If they’ve got new material, they certainly didn’t play it. But regardless, I’m so, so glad they’ve given fans this opportunity to see them again, especially fans like me who thought we’d missed our chance.