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On Saturday night, May 2nd, a buddy and I sat in a beloved Seattle bar called Hattie’s Hat, alone at 1 AM. It’s awfully strange being just one of two paying customers at a bar; you don’t know whether to invite the bartender to sit with you or drink your booze right quick and get the hell out. Was it, as the bartender seemed to insinuate, the burgeoning pandemic of swine flu that was keeping people home? I thought back to two nights earlier, the site of a similar, if much less stark scene at Neumos where Los Angeles’ Abe Vigoda opened a show for the New York band that blew up the blogosphere in 2008- Vivian Girls. Neumos had half the room closed, half of this which was filled with hipster crème de la crème; music writers, a certain UK pop band who weren’t content unless stepping on my feet and several ironic mustaches. Of course it was the swine flu that kept people away, lest I question the cultural commentary provided by myself and my fellow internet music journalists as anything other than incalculably important.

It is the same internet music journos who, by and large, have bequeathed the stylistic title of “tropical punk” on quartet Abe Vigoda. This is due mainly to two elements of the bands sound; their drummer, recent addition Dane Chadwick, has a tendency to play what Spinal Tap referred to as “polyrhythms.” Were I a musicologist, I’d try to impress you here by rattling off the odd time signatures heard in “Skeleton” or “Don’t Lie,” so suffice it to say that Chadwick’s rolls and fills sounded like looped cluster bombs. Tropical punk hallmark #2 are the guitars of Michael Vidal and Juan Velazquez, both played high up on the neck with Vidal’s usually a wall of furiously-strummed treble and Velazquez’s parts being circular, shimmering arpeggios with an aquatic, exotic tone- like steel drums (ahh, tropical punk you say).

For my money, Abe Vigoda have managed to do something interesting with psych rock, being that they aren’t blues & fuzz-based, volume-based or even light show-based; their songs are three-minute series of explosions that disorient and sometimes are disquieting (see the video for “Skeleton”). Matching this frantic pace was Vigoda’s mood that night; shifting nervously from foot to foot, Velazquez would indulge in scatterbrained banter before breaking a string and proclaiming the show, their last with Vivian Girls, couldn’t go on. Vivian Girl Kickball Katy handing over her bandmate Cassie Ramone’s shit-beat Squire. Even after this, Abe Vigoda could only be cajoled into playing about two more songs before feverishly breaking down their gear and speeding off into the night.

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Vivian Girls, as lo-fi as their recognizable sound is, spent an eternity setting up. All three girls, including drummer Ali Koehler, ‘check check checked’ their mics for minutes and minutes in order to find just the right level of echoing girl group ghostliness which turned out not to matter. The Girls were noisy on record and also live, yet it was not the guitar squall that I’d expected that was loud; FOH could not manage to balance Katy’s bass rumble and Ali’s kick, both of whom managed to tread all over Cassie’s guitar and voice. Halfway through, they exchanged in a dialogue with the audience over the bad sound (“You can’t hear my guitar?” Cassie asks the 1/4-filled room… Katy says in polite NPR inflection “Let’s turn that shit up!”) that, coupled with the turnout, made the performance feel like a tiny show in someone’s living room.

Vivian Girls are a strange band to behold, especially in this city. If you haven’t already, watch Hype!, Doug Pray’s 1996 documentary that cast the emergent music scene of Seattle in a nostalgic light during a time its reverberations were still taking place through suburban America. In it, we see the righteous riot grrl anger (yeah, fuck the patriarchal narrative!) of the Gits and 7 Year Bitch, whom, in the case of the latter, took on the traditionally male braggadocio of Johnny Rotten or Sid Vicious to match the aggression or disillusionment of their male peers. Fifteen years later, we have Vivian Girls, one blonde, one brunette, one redhead…whose bear arms showed off tattoos of milkshakes, cassettes and hamburgers and sang songs about second dates like the Shangri-Las covering the Ramones.

At the end of their set, the Girls, one at a time, switched instruments with each other, perpetuating a droning romp that went nowhere but it didn’t matter. What was most striking about this was that, were this Mia Zapata or someone from L7 attacking a prone guitar with a tambourine almost 20 years earlier, there would be a sort of intense aggression onstage, aimed at the instrument and indirectly, nihilistically aimed at the crowd. Instead, there were wide grins onstage as they battered on. While this all veered toward self-indulgence, it tasted a little more like goofball fun. Which is, I think, what we all need in life during flutime.

by Chris Middleman
[Photos: Stan D. Payne]https://spectrumculture.com/2009/06/busdriver-jheli-beam.html

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