By Hollister Dixon and Gabriel Mathews
There’s often no way around more than one person on the Faces on the Radio staff covering the same band on the same tour, in two different cities. This, of course, brings us a few questions: what changes in between shows? How are the two nights going to be different? Even if they perform identical setlists, what’s going to be different about the songs being played? With those questions in mind, we present to you the first in (what we hope to be) an ongoing series: Two States: This edition features Hollister Dixon covering Savages in Portland, OR, and FOTR correspondent Gabriel Mathews covering them in LA. Enjoy.
9.25.13 – Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR – Hollister
Savages // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani
One of the things that I enjoy most about indie rock shows is going to them knowing absolutely nothing about the bands you’re about to see. This has been a whirlwind year for Savages, having released their debut record, Silence Yourself, to a massive burst of extremely positive press. They’ve spent some time in the limelight being compared to everyone from My Bloody Valentine to Joy Division (both comparisons were drawn by our own Yousef Hatlani), and with that in mind, I took it upon myself to go into the show knowing only one thing about the band: that they are, apparently, excellent. Which they are, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
First we need to talk a little bit about Duke Garwood, a musician who spent the entirety of his time onstage looking like a bearded Nick Cave. This is never a bad thing, of course, but what about his music? That presents a mild problem: I spent a good chunk of the performance waffling between adoring Garwood’s sound, and being utterly put-off and bothered, because it simply wasn’t what I wanted to hear at that moment. This brought me to an interesting question: if a performer’s act doesn’t fulfill what I’m looking for in the moment, does it mean that the performance was bad? It certainly doesn’t, but I then have to ask myself: if I didn’t enjoy Duke Garwood, who would I have enjoyed in the moment? Who would have been more fitting for this show? School of Seven Bells? Secret Machines, circa 2004? Interpol, circa Turn On the Bright Lights? By the end of it, I still wasn’t quite sure if I did enjoy it, but what I do know is this: Garwood can play pretty goddamn well.
There’s something almost ethereal about how Savages play. The London four-piece don’t play music so much as they inhabit it; arriving on a stage almost whited out by the smoke machine(s), frontwoman Jehnny Beth stalked the stage, somehow making the one-foot-on-a-monitor cliche look a lot less contrived. The other four players managed to turn the contructs of post-punk inside out, making typical rock conventions feel almost sexy amidst the strobe lights. They even tore up a frenetic, throbbing, eternally building cover of “Dream Baby Dream” by Suicide. Moments like these don’t come along very often, and when they do, it’s hard not to bask in your luck.
One of the things that I enjoy most about indie rock shows is going to them knowing absolutely nothing about the bands you’re about to see. Watching Savages play, there were moments where I wished I knew every word, so that I could fully enjoy every moment, as much as some of the people near me in the front row, eyes bright, hanging on Beth’s every syllable. And on the other hand, there is an undeniable magic in hearing a band for the first time in the moment, not on record, but in the flesh, a few feet from you. Savages are a band that feel necessary for the moment, despite having a sound that would have worked just as well in 1983. They somehow managed to go on the road with a fully-formed sound, and as a new admirer, I have to ask myself: what’s next for this band? How do they improve on a sound that most bands spend five albums and an EP chasing?
I’m glad I got to see Savages exactly when and how I did. I admire that band so very much already, because there’s a definite feeling of certainty in the way they play, as if they’re saying, “Don’t worry: we’re gonna be at this for awhile. You can get comfortable and watch what happens.” I, for one, am very excited to see where it goes from here.
9.30.13 – Fonda Theater, Los Angeles, CA – Gabriel
Seeing as I seem to have started a pattern of putting little introductory anecdotes at the tops of my reviews, I see no reason to stop now, especially with this particularly harrowing tale.
I had tickets to see Savages back in July at the El Rey, where they were playing two nights in a row. It was going to be pretty rad. But as my friend and I approached the venue, I realized that I’d been a little bit confused as to day of the week vs. day of the month, and there was a distinct possibility in my mind that we’d arrived a day too late. Approaching the box office, I said, “Hey, I should be on the will call list, but I’m a bit worried my tickets were actually for last night.” The guy failed to find my name, and I went home angry with myself. But then, upon looking at my email receipt, I discovered that I did in fact have tickets for that night, and the box office dude had merely fucked up. I was livid, until I got a promise that Goldenvoice would comp me tickets to any upcoming show as an apology, and found Savages, playing the Fonda two months later.
Flash forward two months, here I am, dressed all in black (it seemed only appropriate) at the Fonda, fka the Music Box, a vastly superior venue, waiting to see the band I’d been so unbelievably stoked for in the summer. Silver linings, right?
The Fonda is like a jacked up Crystal Ballroom— the paintings on the walls and ornate woodwork on the ceiling put the Crystal to shame with their baroque, Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Edward-Gorey styling. The checkerboard floor is classy, and the place is about a quarter of the size of the Crystal, making for an intimate evening every time. Last time I was here I saw Divine Fits, and it was one of the best shows I’d seen in a long time, simply on a technical level—The Fonda’s sound and light people know exactly what they’re doing, unlike those at the Crystal. Fuck the El Rey.
First up was Duke Garwood, best known, I think, for last year’s collaboration with Mark Lanegan, Black Pudding, which was released on Mike Patton’s Ipecac imprint and which I now desperately want to hear. Garwood, with Savages’ frontwoman’s boyfriend and emaciated band swami Johnny Hostile in tow on bass, looked like a grizzled old man, dressed in all black, playing some bluesy noise-groove shit that definitely would sound excellent with Lanegan singing over it. Garwood’s mumbled delivery left a bit to be desired (honestly, the guy said a few things to the audience, none of which were remotely audible), but his inventive and intuitive guitar playing was pretty transfixing, and when he occasionally pulled out his bass clarinet to do some Colin Stetsonesque squaking, it became that much more interesting. The backing drum tracks were all unshakeably groovy and unshakeably weird. While there was tragically no surprise appearance from Lanegan, Garwood did invite Jehnny Beth, Savages’ singer, onstage for a duet. I was shocked to see her in a white blouse.
When Savages came on, though, they were all in black, through and through. Visually speaking, Savages are not only four objectively beautiful women, they are four objectively beautiful women who have clearly put a lot of thought into their visual presentation. I’m fairly certain Beth, guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayşe Hassan, and drummer Fay Milton wear exactly the same black clothing every night, and their hairstyles never change either. Beth’s NatPo buzzcut is entirely appropriate, as is Thompson’s eye-shielding mop. Milton’s top-ponytail makes her bounciness as a drummer even more apparent, and Hassan’s banged updo fits her lackadaisical stage personality perfectly. Throughout Savages’ performance, only white lights are ever shed on the band. And this is only the tip of their theatricality.
A Savages show, it is clear, is not merely a rock concert. They know how to bring on the pageantry. Beth had clear set-piece moments throughout, such as climbing out on the railing during new track “I Need Something New” and her speech about her masochistic friend Michelle jammed in the middle of “Hit Me.” In fact, everything this band seems so of-a-piece, from their clothes to their mission-driven songs to the signs posted outside their shows requesting that phones be silenced and pocketed (some asshat had his cameraphone thee inches from Beth’s face while she stood on the barricade and I wanted her to punch his lights out) that it feels almost less like a band than an art project.
Perhaps this explains why the crowd at the Fonda was so staid. We weren’t exactly watching a rock show, no matter how much it sounded like one, and despite the raucousness of songs like “No Face” and “Husbands,” people who moved did so alone, while people who didn’t stared intently at the band, waiting to see how the piece would unfold. Some of this crowd dullness also seems attributable to age— the median was probably 32. Savages, I think, appeals to a certain rockist nostalgia for a time when a band was a unit that performed with real instruments (they eschew electronics completely), had an ideology, aimed at something other than creating sound.
Not to say that this band doesn’t create an awesome sound. These are four incredibly talented musicians, and every song (and they hit pretty much every song from their debut record Silence Yourself) was pitch perfect. Everyone always focuses on Beth and Thompson, who apparently started the band and is its overall mastermind, but I have to say they’d be mere preachy noiseniks without Hassan and Milton, who have got to be one of the best working rhythm sections right now. Hassan is especially impressive—unlike Thompson, hunched over her guitar and coaxing notes out of it, she bounced and jived continually (whether actively playing or not), standing upright, eyes closed, pretty much never looking at her hands even as they played the intensely complex and melodic basslines Savages’ music calls for. When your guitarist spends most of her time making noise and your singer is more of a wailer, it falls to you as the bassist to hold down the melodic structure, and Hassan is probably one of the best I’ve ever seen at doing this. Milton, too, seems technically trained and impressively creative, as with her sickly lurching beat on “Strife” that always just barely misses time in the most tantalizing way.
When the roadies lugged out a piano and Duke Garwood with his clarinet, it was time for album closer “Marhsal Dear,” which struck me as an odd choice. Following the morose “Waiting For A Sign” with another relatively subdued track seemed to force a weird, midset slump. But they pulled out of it and straight into “She Will,” “No Face,” “Hit Me,” and “Husbands.” I began to see exactly where this band’s sense of performance comes from when Beth, over the intro riff to “Husbands,” started saying, “This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!” Like Talking Heads before them, Savages is an idea-oriented act, and as such, simply getting on stage and playing some songs is not an option.
Garwood and Hostile came out one last time for closer “Fuckers.” This song is not on any record, as far as I can tell, but it seems they close every set with it. It revolves around a mantra, imprinted on their t-shirts and CDs, which Beth explained in a remarkable pre-song monologue. I paraphrase: “I have a friend, in London, who said to me: Don’t let the fuckers get you down. He stayed over at my house, and in the morning he left me a note that said, ‘Thanks for the conversation, but don’t let the fuckers get you down.’ And it made me think. It made me think that, before I decide that I need to change, or that there’s something wrong with me, first, I must look around myself and ask… Are the people around me cunts? —’We will be cunts to the cunts and we will be good to the people we love.’ This is another thing he said. He should be a priest. . . Amen.” While I can’t say I agree entirely with the age-old anti-authoritarian sentiment, I wholeheartedly concur with the rage of sound Savages and friends followed it with, ending their set with a wail from Beth and a ringing chord from Thompson. The band took bows, appropriately. There would be no encore. Appropriately.
Throughout their set, I found myself thinking a lot about this sense of appropriateness, of deliberateness to everything Savages does as a unit. And I decided something sort of odd: I don’t want to see this band make another album. I don’t think they should even last past this year. It’s clear all involved will go on to do remarkable things, but they currently have such a perfect package of music, ideology, and aesthetic that adding anything to it would be frivolous, it would be extraneous to this project. Interviews with Thompson seem to suggest that Savages for her was always rooted in an idea more than in four people coming together to make music indefinitely, and it seems to me they’ve embodied that idea perfectly. There is so much deliberate intent behind this band that I’d be scared to see what a multi-record contract might force them into. Please, Savages, continue rocking faces for a little while longer, and then silence yourselves.