By Gabriel Mathews
For my first ever show in Seattle, I could have done a lot worse than the Tractor Tavern. Located in the heart of Ballard, the Tractor is a nicely countrified space with good sound and a solid beer selection. I wouldn’t be surprised if that last bit ends up being true about most venues in Seattle, but I’m glad it was true of the Tractor. If only I’d had the money to get on Chad VanGaalen’s level… But more on that later.
Seattle natives Hibou were up first, and there’s really not much I can say about them, aside from this humble request (read: desperate plea): Can we all just please be done with chiming, reverb-drenched guitars? It is very possible to be too damn chill. Also, Hibou guy, are you consciously trying to sound like the dude from Tokyo Police Club? Because you really, really do.
Cousins, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, fared significantly better. Their incredibly straight- forward garagefolk was altogether lovely. Set opener “Thunder” is maybe the best song with only three lines I’ve ever heard, and the duo (augmented by a saxophonist for this set) didn’t stop there. Bowl-cutted frontman Aaron Mangle has a serious knack for simple, melancholy tunes, and Cousins’ barebones setup accentuated his husky wail really nicely. Cousins’ songs reminded me of a number of simple, direct bands making simple, direct songs these days, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they join the ranks of widely adored acts like Waxahatchee and Swearin’. Though I have yet to actually hear it, I highly recommend their new album, The Halls of Wickwire.
After putting down his saxophone, Chad VanGaalen picked up his zany headless guitar. (Oh, yeah, that was him up there with Cousins, exhibiting yet another of his seemingly endless talents.) Mangle grabbed a bass, and the two were joined by a drummer for a surprisingly rocking powertrio setup. I suppose surprise isn’t really the appropriate reaction, as VanGaalen has been toning down his folkiness a bit on his last two albums, 2011’s winding Diaper Island and this year’s excellent Shrink Dust. That said, his albums have always had rock moments, folk moments, electro moments, and mostly indescribable moments, so I wouldn’t necessarily have put it past him to get on stage with nothing but an 808 and a trombone.
After tearing through Shrink Dust openers “Cut Off My Hands” and the strangely groovy “Where Are You?”, VanGaalen took a break to tell us that this was the last date of the tour, and that he was very excited to be seeing his family in Calgary the next day. He told us a lot of other things over the course of the night: How he’d clogged the venue’s toilet with “poopoocaca” while draping his fingers over the edge of the saloon-style door to make sure people knew he was in there; how he’d left a Batman piñata, which he slurred into “piñassa” multiple times, on the side of the road between Berkeley and Eugene; how sitting in a van for so long had caused his balls and his anus to fuse together. Chad VanGaalen is one weird dude, especially when quite drunk.
But that weird dude makes some incredible, haunting, enthralling music. Highlights for me were a ripping, electrified rendition of his 2008 Polaris-Prize-nominated masterpiece Soft Airplane’s “Rabid Bits Of Time,” as well as “Willow Tree” and “Poisonous Heads,” both off the same album. During an acoustic patch, a few of Shrink Dust’s prettiest songs shone through, most notably “Weighted Sin,” which is tragically excellent. Also done acoustically, and much to the excitement of the female fan behind me was “Shave My Pussy,” which is a really fascinating song about female body insecurity that just happens to be written by a 6’4” man.
A few bars into Diaper Island’s “Sara,” VanGaalen told us it was about his wife, and that every time he plays it he fucks it up and feels really bad. At the end of a gorgeously heartfelt rendition, he said that it had been maybe the worst version he’d ever done, which was very hard to believe. His excuse: “I was just undressing her in my mind the whole time. I have a very hot wife.” He then went on to tell us about what an amazing mother she is to his kids, and how she’d told him, “If you want to stay with me, you have to put babies inside me.” Then, with about the same amount of heart, he played “Lila,” named for his recently deceased dog.
All drunken jesting aside, VanGaalen’s set reminded me frequently of the most exciting creative impulses involved in making music. Many of the set’s most thrilling moments felt improvised, and, upon returning to the stage for his encore (zipping his fly as he rejoined us from a quick “pee pee”), he even offered to improvise a new song for us on the spot. Which he then did, wonderfully, as his bandmates joined him, swapped instruments, and jammed the shit out of it. VanGaalen’s work has always seemed the product of a possibly disturbed mind, and I can’t say that this show made me any less worried about him, or his kids for that matter. That said, his set was gloriously fucked up, and I can’t wait to see what he gets up to the next time I catch him.