[27 September 2004]
Bitter Bitter Weeks
Philadelphia’s Khyber is one of those small slash cum concert venues that you find in every city. Not too clean and not too big, but always with a sizable crowd and an open stage for local and touring bands. It’s a perfect place for cigarettes and guitar distortion; but perhaps not so ideal for acoustic catharsis of the type that is Bitter Bitter Weeks’ stock in trade. The club’s performance space was no more than one third full when the waif-like Brian McTear (the driving force behind Bitter Bitter Weeks’ confessional folk project) took to the stage. While the sparse crowd could partly be attributed to the decidedly un-Saturday night 9:15 p.m. show time, the large number of apparently uninterested observers, coupled with the ongoing competition between the chatter of the bar patrons and the sylphlike music coming from the stage made it difficult to imagine a less apt setting for the performance that transpired.
In many ways, the word performance seems inadequate when referring to Bitter Bitter Weeks. There is nothing about the artist that seems even remotely artificial. Tucked into a well-worn sweater that elicited feelings of warmth and comfort just looking at it, and singing songs about the “dangerous thoughts that creep in alone” and how “sometimes the saddest happenings choose the sunniest days,” McTear is nothing if not honest. Physically he was reminiscent of the little guy from high school forced, because of his stature and sensitivity, to be on guard for mindless abuse. But some of these guys, because of those same qualities, develop an inner resolve that allows them to cope. Whether this is true of Brian McTear or not, I can’t say, but BBW came through with a tough, emotionally inspiring performance under conditions that have caused countless other artists to wilt.
The music stuck to the time-tested formula of ringing open chords matched to a nasal tenor. His guitar playing, if not particularly impressive, served the songs well. McTear clearly understands how a strum skipped or a beat emphasized can be used to heighten the underlying emotion of his songs. His singing was used in a similar sense. By using technically simple, but emotionally expressive devices, he was able to shine a light on the shadowy universal truths that lurk within his intensely personal songs. Even though he was performing unaccompanied, McTear brought an endearing physicality to his performance. Rising up on his tiptoes as he strained to hit high notes and rocking back and forth as he determinedly pumped away at his guitar, you couldn’t help but feel a sense of underdog sympathy for the guy.
At times, the lyrical content of the songs nudged the set past a general sense of struggle into an almost Sisyphean realm. Appropriately enough, the best song of the night was called “Boy Takes on Tornado”. Bitter Bitter Weeks may at times come perilously close to maudlin repetitiveness, but the music being performed the way it was, where it was, ultimately created a sense of uplift that could be hard to approximate on disc. Hearing songs about the struggle of existence sung as the performer wrestled with the apathy of the crowd was a gripping, and at times unsettling, experience. There was something deeply ironic about the fact that the mostly inattentive crowd and inappropriate venue helped McTear create a visceral emotionality that would be almost impossible to recreate in a recording. Listening to the exact same songs in the comfort of my own home, it’s highly doubtful that I would find myself pulling for McTear like I was as I watched him play live. As obvious as it sounds, live music is a different beast than recorded music. This is a fact that too many artists seem to overlook, and one that McTear skilfully exploited to his benefit.
Even with their ability to aid in the creation of an honest emotional event, there was a sameness to the songs, both in their musical structure and lyrical content, that Bitter Bitter Weeks would be well served to address by perhaps slightly changing the music’s template. It would be interesting to see if BBW could alleviate some of the homogeneity by working the same songs into a full-band context. There have only been a select handful of artists able to consistently create compelling moments armed with only their songs.
During the performance I overheard an audience member favourably compare Bitter Bitter Weeks to an artist who has, for years, been able to conquer the challenge of solo performance: Bob Dylan. Brian McTear is no Bob Dylan, but judging from his courageous and emotional performance, he just may have his Blood on the Tracks somewhere inside him.