By Mitchell L. Hillman
Sometimes you go to a show and there simply is a vibe, a certain ephemeral quality, a momentary zeitgeist that can be described in no way other than "perfection." It could be any number of things, but usually it comes down to first, a carefully casted lineup, a group of bands whose sounds are complementary. Secondly, it relies on a great venue or rather an appropriate venue for the aforementioned lineup -- I mean if the lineup is lo-fi garage rock, the Yucca would be great, but if you need to deliver fidelity, you need to find the right space.
Finally, there needs to be a crowd that is eager to devour the music being pounded out on stage. When these elements combine properly, the evening is transformed from just a bunch of bands playing together to an actualized event where people are left smiling, dazed, and sometimes slightly confused as the show lets out.
Some shows try for it and fail, other shows seem to happen upon it accidentally, and still other shows appear designed to weave your soul and mind into the very fabric of the night. Such was the case Thursday night at Last Exit Live, when Small Leaks Sink Ships, As In We, Morning Theft, and Celebration Guns came together on a rainy evening in Phoenix.
I had a feeling it was going to be one of those events. I had missed Morning Theft's debut because I had already promised to catch Celebration Guns' debut, which blew me away -- then I heard through the grapevibe that Morning Theft's debut was spectacular as well. As In We visits here from San Jose with some frequency, and they are always great. Small Leaks Sink Ships is probably the best band in Phoenix, but they refuse to make a big deal about it, and their fans want to keep it like a secret.
So there's the formula. It's like shaking up a bottle of champagne and popping the cork -- it's going to go everywhere, everyone enjoys it, and for the most part, no one gets hurt (plus, you get champagne). In this case, every band brought its A-game, and by the time Small Leaks took the stage, it was just the icing on the cake. They were a delicious dessert for an already well-fed crowd.
Celebration Guns is one of my favorite debut bands of 2013. Formed from the ashes of Wizards of Time, NEBA, and Tiger Heist, this was a winning combination before it ever began. The band's debut EP, soon to be released by Rubber Brother Records, is actually just a set of demos that outshine what many bands put out as finished product. They took the stage first, and the crowd went from 15 to 50 in the span of one song. They played only two songs from the Quitter EP; the rest was new material, which takes what they did on the release and runs with it.
The set was great and the new songs have further solidified my belief in this band. On a side note, the immaculate sound system at Last Exit Live made Chris Blanco's guitar sound as though it was powered by the tears of angels.
Morning Theft: Wow, I was not expecting that. I had heard their debut was great, but I had no idea they would be that good -- I had no idea what to expect, really, they don't have recordings up yet . . . I was going on blind trust because they were ex-members of Wizards of Time, Packrat, and The Constellation Branch.
Across five songs, they blew my mind. Their music even leaves me at a loss for words, but a friend stopped in for their set and said, "That was refreshing -- that really hit the spot." I couldn't agree more. The music isn't like much else that's going on: twin guitars, keys, bass, drum, and a violin, harmonies to write home about, and a knack for letting loose while keeping control. I get bored with solos and excess noodling, but Morning Theft has it down. At the last second, where I would almost give up on a careening passage, they'd reel it in with perfect timing. Also, they have a secret weapon in the form of Cassie Chilton -- her violin, her harmonies, and her pounding of a floor tom were amazing.
This is not to detract in any way from the rest of the band, it's just that she accented everything they did with grace and beauty. The final song, "Magic Shop/White Sands," sounded like X in their prime, with the shared vocals between Chilton and Jordan Cruz, the thumping bass of Lorne Mills, and the pounding drums of Rodrigo Ibieta -- when Christopher Shearing kicked in on harmonies, I nearly fell through myself. Then again, the four songs that preceded it were pretty amazing, too -- not a single flawed moment in their entire set.
By the time our welcomed guests from San Jose took the stage, the evening already was magical. I have to hand it to As In We, their Facebook description is pretty accurate: "Darkness and light. History and timelessness. Life and death. Transcendence and regret." Yep. All there. What's more amazing is that over the course of a 40-minute set, they were able to play three songs.
Considering the last song, the jauntiest of the bunch, was six minutes long and the most conventionally "rock" song, well, you can do the math on the other two. Speaking of math, As In We is some pretty amazing aggressive math rock to the blissed-out nth degree -- forget Explosions In The Sky or anything like it, these guys (and a gal) are simply stunning. For many minutes amid the two longer compositions, I completely lost myself as I processed the music that seemed completely purple with red and yellow flashes. They take soundscapes to a new level of realization and zealously preach their gospel of high energy, emotionally impactful instrumentals through peaks and troughs like an aural rollercoaster straight to your soul, this is music that goes beyond hearing and well into feeling and halfway through the set you become one with it.
This is not a band to listen to casually -- this is a band in which you immerse yourself. You get into the water and you stay there until their dizzying heights and terrifying depths leave your ears ringing after the music has gone.
It was three for three by that point. The great thing was that Small Leaks Sink Ships would follow. This band always delivers -- always. It was like all that was left was the icing, so people drank and smoked and waited, because everyone knew it would be good. And it was. Small Leaks is easily one of my top five bands in town, but though they may not be my favorite, I have this underlying thought that they may actually be the best. There is something about their music, about its construction and delivery, that is unlike anyone else's. They don't play out a lot, but you get the feeling they practice all the time. They don't mix in with much of the rest of the scene -- not out of attitude or artistry, but because they've just got their own damn thing going and they are centered on it.
I've been watching them live for four or five years now, and I've yet to go to a show where I was not absolutely transfixed by the experience. They would be my most current pick for "Dance Band for the Apocalypse." They present a maelstrom of madness-driven music hinged on indie rock leanings and combined with prog rock sensibilities and a pinch of psychedelia. It's not difficult to understand why they have such a fervent fan base. Add to that the mystique behind why they won't play the most requested and shouted out song in their catalog ("Pray for Pills") and you've got a perfect little package ready to take the stage.
Listening to Small Leaks at Last Exit is a little like sipping ambrosia with the ancient gods. The perfect band with the perfect sound (kudos to Gabriel Gonzalez, the genius behind the board all night) in the perfect room. The only drawback there is the size of the stage; for the amount of stage they need to switch instruments and to switch who plays them, this caused a lot of undue pauses.
But the pauses were always richly rewarded -- they were well worth the wait. They alluded to the fact that their highly anticipated album might finally see release in the next three to six months, which is exciting because five of the six songs they played are presumably on this album.
They did play "Glass Hypnotist" from their last release, 2011's Oak Street Basement, which drove the crowd crazy like it always does. Still, songs like "Midnight Jin," "Orchis," and "Yellow Bird" are screaming to be released, and fans now know the lyrics after their repeated appearances in their live set. The evening concluded appropriately with "The Mind in Its Own Place," as everyone found themselves in their own space, stunned by the happenings of the set, the evening as a whole and what they had just witnessed.
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People stood around outside for an unusually long time, unable to shake it off, but it was one of those nights, and nothing can shake that from your soul.