When I got asked to cover this show, What Weekly’s initial contact was from K Records, the Olympia, Washington label that’s putting out “In Cool Blood,” the soon-to-be-released album from Chain and the Gang. For those who don’t know Chain and the Gang, it’s the latest project of Ian Svenonius, the legendary dapper-dressed, mop-topped, manifesto spewing front-man of such seminal Washington D.C. groups as The Nation of Ulysses and The Make-Up. As a longtime fan of these groups for the better part of a decade, I find myself excited as the concert approaches. I’d never seen Ian Svenonius in concert before, and have been captivated by his music since my high school days of hearing the Make-Up and similar groups in esoteric skateboarder flicks. But Chain and the Gang were only part of the equation that brought the Floristree Space alive with multi-faceted strangeness and intensity on the evening of March 23rd.
Baltimore is full of spots like Floristree –once vacant buildings reclaimed by artists, and turned into performance and studio spaces. This is not a well-advertised or easy to find place; it’s got an unassuming façade, it’s on a dark street, and whether the front door is propped or unlocked for patrons is hit or miss. Floristree is an aggressively independent, word-of-mouth driven venue that requires a bit of effort and attention to be paid to make it out to a show there.
What follows is my attempt at recollecting a whirlwind evening.
Gazing upon Floristree for the first time, I immediately feel at home. The greenish aqua-puke paint adorning the front walls, an abundance of couches for my fat-ass to drink beer upon before the music starts, dim lights, dirty floors, and a disconcertingly hypnotic display of televisions projecting rotating geometric patterns; this is good. I feel warm and happy in the well-executed don’t-give-a-shitness of this place. Time for the Rock to commence.
First up is Work Clothes, a searing and droning three-piece dealing in jagged, shape-shifting guitar lines, digitized noise, and thunderous, reckoning-is-nigh drum beats. Particularly what I enjoy about their set is, besides the fact that I’m a sucker for anxiety inducing noise music, that the guitar player does not turn and the face the crowd ONCE. Combined with the lack of in-between song banter or merchandise plugging, the indifference towards the patron in this band’s equation is something I get a kick out of; the stuff is just so rugged, weird, and utterly un-danceable, the audience itself really does seem to be irrelevant, almost as if to say: “We’re up here making ART for God’s sake, why the fuck are you all staring at us?” A+. I’m not much of a dancer anyhow.
Next up are The Creepers, a Baltimore two-piece with some seriously, seriously weird stuff to get off their chests. Think jilted-man songs sung with a show-tunes affectation over dueling keyboard and trumpet lines. The Creepers straddle that fine line between “Should I laugh?” and “Should I not make eye contact with these guys for the rest of the night?” A disgruntled, woman-obsessed, hiding-in-your-bushes-with-binoculars theme comes through strong, and the whole scene would be a pretty uncomfortable one if it weren’t for the fact that they have a serious knack for vocal harmonies and are technically proficient on their respective instruments. Well-honed dementia. And though I wouldn’t want it piped in through loudspeakers in my home, the aesthetic is effective all the same.
Third on the docket is Baltimore’s Sterling Sisters, a group that makes some obvious nods to 16 Horsepower and other Old-Testament invoking Goth-country bands. With fiddle, guitar, banjo, drums, and a bassist endowed with a rafter-shaking operatic voice, the sound is full and commanding; the crowd is really getting into it. They have a knack for the crescendo, taking plaintive country melodies and building them up into full on orchestrated barn-burners. I will admit that the lead singer’s string bow-tie really brings it all full circle for me; he’s like a singing cowboy that comes to you while you’re trippin’ balls. The crowd responds with a blaring final round of applause before the stage is given over to longtime Ian Svenonius collaborator Alex Minoff. With just Alex and his guitar delivering straightforward, melodic songs, it’s a fitting, minimal palette cleanser before the final two acts (though a bit drowned out by the hubbub of the crowd), and the most traditional and grounded set of the evening.
Chain and the Gang is the 5th band of the night and at this point, the crowd is good and riled up. We have all had a couple of beers. My eyes are burning from smoke. Ian Svenonius and company take the stage and I’m feeling a bit giddy; getting to see Ian’s hair in person is a hoot-and-a-half, but there’s music too! For fans of earlier Ian Svenonius acts, Chain and the Gang does not disappoint: warped garage punk heavily informed by early R&B, a dance-out-of-your-pants rhythm section, and the snotty and soulful counter-vocals of a woman in a bright red dress, whose definite name currently eludes the past 2 days of my internet research. Svenonius screeches and orates and hops up and down and gyrates beneath the confines of a suspiciously clean and pressed grey suit; he’s the preacher, and we are the congregation. Hallelujah! But this shitfest isn’t done yet; we’ve still got Roomrunner coming up to take us into the 1am hour.
For those who haven’t seen Baltimore’s own Roomrunner before, the first adjective that comes to my mind is LOUD. Skull-splittingly LOUD. Is it punk? Is it garage? Is it metal? Nah, it’s Rock, drowned in overdriven noise and feedback, and it’s LOUD. The vocals drone like a washing machine that’s still running as the house burns down; did I mention that it’s LOUD? The drummer is having problems with his kit this particular evening, and it’s pretty obvious that he’s not enjoying having to fight with his cymbals and bass drum in between songs. But his mounting frustration, which at one points leads to him jumping off of said bass drum and into a brief moment of mosh-pit reverie, just adds to the electricity of the whole set. A partial destruction of the drum-kit and ceremonious guitar tossing closes this particular evening of music at Floristree.
Wandering back to my car a little after 2am, my brain tries to catch up, as though I am being escorted off an airplane that was forced to make an emergency landing after a 3-hour battle with a terrifying and feral lightning storm. But truthfully, nights like tonight couldn’t be any further from a near-death experience. The power of these D.I.Y spaces, fueled by grassroots enthusiasm and an eclectic consortium of local and regional artists, symbolize a heartbeat. Watching a room full of people sway and mosh and bop and drink and smoke in a barely-legal venue isn’t just some passing glance into an offbeat fringe group; you’re looking at the energy of a living city, living spaces, living music. If you want art that is vital, urgent, and resistant to the grubby fingers of co-opting forces, you’ve got to pay attention. As the world burns, it also gives birth.