An hour of sitting in a dark room on a stained velvet sofa, sipping beer from a plastic cup. A crowd trickling in one by one to settle into shadowy corners and paw at one another. No music. That’s Underground Arts on a Tuesday night. That’s the opening to an evening featuring three acts, one of which I was there to see. That’s an opening worthy of questioning the reasons why I chose to show up. And question I did. A lot.
The further dimming of the already oily black room did nothing but make me feel I was in the sort of club that required its patrons to wear silk robes and puff away at calabash pipes. The crowd of sixty or so did little else in the new dark but whisper to one another, neck, or combine the two. This failed to dissuade my imagination from running away with ideas of what would happen next. With a clear path to the exit, there was only a warming beer to finish, it was time to go.
Then a lanky, semi-bearded guitarist sat down on a steel chair on stage. Alone without a mic, Bob from Junior Bob, a Canadian experimental jazz duo, finger tapped his way through his first piece of seemingly improvised music. It took a few minutes for the crowd to understand something spectacular was going on, but once they did, the room went silent. People crowded in front of the stage, mesmerized by Bob’s skill and precision. With no perceptible time signature to speak of, or beat to nod a long to, people stared with their mouths agape, or held their phones up, filming. Each song a minute or two long, Bob would finish an intense, beautiful and mind-bending piece of work, look up, say, “Thanks, I’m Bob from Junior Bob,” and get right back to playing. It was an astounding display of craft and talent.
Then it ended. Short like his pieces, Bob’s set ran for a total of 15 minutes.
Banned Books made quick work of Bob’s minimal stage setup. Falling into the noise rock genre, Banned Books was just what you would expect, but their genre relies on a sound sense of musicianship and skill. You can’t make noise without understanding how to make music first. While it was clear there was an underpinning of talent, I’m not sure if it was shtick, or an inside joke, or just an off night, but things got weird fast. Their set planted its ass right on the line between deranged stupidity and eccentric genius, with most of the second cheek on the stupid side.
Drummer Cameron Vance’s explosive fits of violence behind the kit shook the stage. Whether it was one stick in each hand, or literal handfuls of sticks, he beat his drums so hard that the cinder block keeping his bass drum in place fell off the stage and shattered, spraying the nervous audience with gray talcum. After each of their frantic, ridiculous songs, it seemed to me the crowd was applauding out of sheer confusion. I had the same befuddled feeling. Was it an act? Was I not in on the joke? Were they a good band having a really bad night? I don’t know. What I do know is I was entertained. Despite the tampon flicked into the crowd. Despite the many failed attempts to begin songs. Despite the weird, sensual way in which Vance said, “I’m 27. I got nothin’,” then laughed like a lunatic. And despite the near constant fear that my eyeballs would fall victim to a loose drum stick.
A bit disheartened, a bit weirded out, the crowd didn’t go far. It was clear some of the fun had been sucked out of the room. While Delicate Steve set up on stage, the air of excitement that had billowed up after Bob’s set was missing. A shame, really. What started as a weird evening in a basement and entered into the exciting realm of New Experience was once again just bullshittery in a dark room.
Then Delicate Steve began playing. Upbeat, technical and danceable, guitarist and mastermind Steve Marion wailed without having to shred, physically reacting to his own playing without seeming strange. He and his absurdly talented bandmates turned the night around in the opening seconds of their first song. Featuring classic rock licks with tribal beats, Delicate Steve’s work is experimental and joyful, unclassifiable to subgenres or labels; their music can be enjoyed and marveled at by just about anyone.
Given they only have two records thus far (2011’s Wondervisions and 2012’s Positive Force), it wasn’t a surprise to seem them play a set that consisted of the vast majority of their catalogue during their stint on stage. Fan favorites like “The Ballad of Speck and Pebble” and “Wondervisions” were cheered for as if they were rock ‘n’ roll canon. The slower jams, “Afria Talks To You,” and “Flyin’ High” benefited from their placement toward the end of the set. Every tune flowed into the next, with room for a “Thank you,” from Marion sprinkled here and there. Most of their set was an infectious wall of sound. A performance that can be remembered for the sake of the talent on stage, not the kind of weirdness that stunk up the room earlier.
The lights were a deep blue, the crowd swaying and smiling. The unsettled mood from an hour before had turned into something that bordered on sugary joy. The dark corners of the room were still creepy, but they became part of the aesthetic. Some people were still trying to eat each other’s faces, but that New Experience territory I mentioned earlier had made way for such things to be soundtracked by incredible music.
Often enough, the best nights start with an uneasy gut and a sense of nervous anticipation. These nights give off a vibe of weird, visceral humanity. This show had all of that, indeed, but it paid off big. Fluttery guts don’t have to be a reason to run. Delicate Steve and Bob were the payoff for fighting through the queasiness.