By Hollister Dixon // Photos by Yousef Hatlani
Before we begin, let’s talk a little bit about the history of Slint: Existing for six years in the late 80s/early 90s, Louisville, KY’s Slint (made up of Brian McMahan, David Pajo, Britt Walford, Ethan Buckler, and Todd Brashear) lasted just long enough to put out three releases (1989’s Tweez, and 1991’s Spiderland, as well as an untitled EP, which came out after they’d already broken up) and call it quits.In the time since, however, Spiderland took on a life of its own, proving to have a longevity that was almost unpredictable. The band’s mix of not-quite-post-rock and not-quite-math-rock influenced an incredible amount of bands, to the point where they’ve been cited as the catalyst for both post rock and math rock. In 2005, the band set off on a reasonably sized tour, and have played music sporadically to adoring crowds ever since.
Despite the fact that their music seems like an ill fit for a live experience, it seemed absolutely necessary to get the chance to pay homage to this band. And it felt fantastic, for the most part. More on that in a bit.
First off, let’s talk a little bit about Tropical Trash. Now, I am a very big fan of noise rock bands, and I have nothing but respect for them. However, the Louisville, KY band seemed to have missed an important lesson about the nature of noise rock: if it lacks structure, it will fail. This is a style of music that requires a specific kind of balance, where you pit the joy of sonic dissonance up against the joy of songwriting, and see what comes out of the battle. But while that battle is often a graceful ballet (see: Sonic Youth, a band as obsessed with cacophony as they were with fascinating song structures), it turns into an ugly, one-sided beating if you forego form and set your course directly towards noise. Their entire set felt like a group of people lazily forming pieces made entirely of unrelated notes, and it wasn’t until maybe three songs from the end that I heard something that actually sounded like a song. Before that, it was anybody’s guess what I was hearing, but it didn’t sound like music to me at all, is just sounded like a band that couldn’t be bothered to care much about what they were playing. It was disheartening, because when they did play songs, it sounded fantastic. Better luck next time, I suppose.
So before we talk about Slint‘s performance: let’s talk about crowds. As a very frequent showgoer, I am a big admirer of great atmosphere within a crowd, and when a band like Slint comes back to live music, and plays your city, it’s probably for the best to get them the love and respect they deserve. However, it seems like the crowd that evening was unaware of this unspoken rule, as they took the set as license to talk very loudly, mosh for no discernable reason, and generally tarnish the experience. One such person (you know who you are, guy in the Thrasher shirt) was bad enough that, when he tried to drunkenly apologize to me, I felt compelled to let him know that he was ruining the night for me. This inspired him to be even louder, heckled the band, insulted Portland’s crowds, and acted foolish enough that even his friend told him that he needed to take a step back. That guy left four songs before the end, so I hope he’s happy having missed “Good Morning, Captain”. As for the rest of the crowd, who treated Slint like a mid-week opener: for shame, people.
Now, enough about the crowd. What about the band? For one, I spoke with FOTR’s photographer/co-host before the band took the stage, and I pointed out that, if the band’s sound mix was wrong, the entire show would be completely ruined. Pristine production is the name of the game here, where no notes feel superfluous, and every piece needs to be in lockstep with the rest. How was this part? The short answer: it was fantastic. But the long answer: the band’s singer/guitarist, Brian McMahan, must know that this is true, as he took it upon himself to act as the band’s sound engineer as well as performer, often taking a time out to walk over to the on-stage mixing board (something I’ve never seen onstage before) and fiddle with things, until it was just right. The effect was incredibly noticeable: by allowing a band built around the balance of sound to do what they needed to to maintain that balance, you get a performance that’s enough to leave anybody awestruck. It was, without a doubt, one of the best sounding performances I’ve ever gotten to see. This was paired with an incredibly understated use (or non-use) of the stage’s lighting, opting to present themselves as distinguished silhouettes most of the time, only somewhat visible in the half light of the Ballroom. Compared to the weekend’s other two shows and their lighting (more on those later), this was the most moody, atmospheric set I’ve ever seen, and that’s without even getting into the band’s performance itself.
As for the band, they were incredibly tight, almost absurdly so. Each member of the band fell into a perfect groove with every other member, allowing for an impressive state of serene soundscapes, all of which were incredibly easy to get lost in. And while the last band I saw that was so capable of this did so in a way that made it all feel unnecessary (looking at you, Mazzy Star), Slint’s strengths lie in that unwavering perfection, providing an incredible case for the power of a band sounding exactly like the record while performing the material live. They played every song from Spiderland, and each one sounded better than the last, up until the punishingly beautiful conclusion/Spiderland closer “Good Morning, Captain”, which wrapped up with a wave of reverb bigger and more punishing than anything I’ve ever experienced. I would have been perfectly happy if the band had walked offstage and ended the evening without an encore, as the performance of that song topped anything that could have come after it. And, in truth, it did; the band came back for two songs (“Pat” and “Rhoda” from Tweez), both of which felt like song sketches more than anything else, and it felt strange to end the night with those two tracks, after the blistering beauty of “Good Morning, Captain”. As far as I’m concerned, this was the show’s one and only misstep, though this is a minor trifle.
Despite a terribly irreverent crowd and a funky encore, it’s hard to figure out a way this performance could have felt better. This was a rare moment in time where I felt truly awestruck by the discipline and talent of a band, and despite occasional moments of blistering guitar work, I never felt compelled to thrash around like I normally would at another show. Slint are a band that don’t need that. They’re a band that deserves to be heard live with your head bowed and your eyes closed, while taking in every single note that fell from their perfect songs.