Great Lake Swimmers
Running late, I hurried toward the cafe´ anticipating a great show from one of the best—if little known—bands in America.
Akron/Family released their stellar self-titled debut earlier this year, and I had heard that their upcoming split with Angels of Light shows the debut to be more than a fluke; it’s more a promise of great and noisier things to come. Knowing the band’s reputation for high-energy live shows, I was hoping to get a good spot in the middle of a crazy crowd.
Just ten minutes after the scheduled start time, I bounced down the steps, explained myself to the ticket-taker and rushed into an empty room. I was the first person there, unless you count the band, still doing its soundcheck. I sat down and listened to the brief snippets that would later reappear in full form. I spent some time looking at the books for sale and contemplating the isolated nature of my mind, in which Akron/Family simply could not be missed.
I drank a beer. I was still the only one there.
My excitement grew and faded as the crowd—though not the opening band—slowly began to appear and mill about. My frustration with opener the Great Lake Swimmers, who seemed to have gone missing, gradually turned into paternal anxiety: Oh, no! Maybe the Swimmers had driven their van off a bridge and drowned. One thing remained, my determination that Swimmers would have to be really good if I had to wait this long.
The Swimmers arrived after an hour or so, explaining that their car (car?) had overheated and temporarily broken down. They turned out to be worth the wait, though, as Tony Dekker led his band through a series of slow numbers which, frequently in ¾, were always more centered on lyrics than music. I’m not sure why the bassist was even there, unless he was a friend brought along to entertain on long rides between cities. At one point he was either impersonating a mime or had gone for a drink; I’m not sure which. The group varied tempos for the second half of their brief set, allowing Dekker’s smart lyrics to bring out a wider range of emotions.
Then Akron/Family—comprised of a lumberjack, a woodsman, a Banhart-stylealike, and a rosy-cheeked kid—put on a show like nothing I’ve ever seen. Their performance opened with a recorder/pennywhistle/melodica/bowed-glockenspiel noise that turned into a song that then turned it into an experience. When a guitarist begins playing the rim of a glass, you know you’re in for oddity; when he plays two kazoos at once while doing other stuff with his hands, it passes beyond that level and becomes something beautiful.
But look past the toy-shop instruments and you’ll see technically-skilled musicians, shifting time-signatures and tempos with the precision of a tight jazz combo (and even utilizing one time-sig I couldn’t identify). The traditional pop and folk structures repeatedly fell in and out of pure noise, the loudest the new folk venue, Gravity Lounge, has ever heard. The musicians, too, moved from restrained sounds to absolute anarchy; I think they stayed seated throughout the show for their own safety.
Then I was bopping my head and rocking out, but now it’s a few days and too little sleep later and I’m miserably failing to capture the ecstasy of the night. Akron/Family aren’t a critical wet dream—they’re just the moment of orgasm. There’s no lick or caress, just pure spurt. They scream; they flop; they bang; they blow; they feed their instruments and electronics back until your ears buzz. And then they sing lines like “I want to see the thing in itself / I don’t want to think no more”, merging Kantian thought, country grammar, and rock hedonism. But you forget about that Kant stuff when your blood pumps—heaviest in your ears and chest—and everything present is destroyed only to be re-created.
Through this entire explosion, the band finds times for unusually arranged four-part harmony. The vocals are striking and gorgeous (occasionally screamed), so it wasn’t that surprising when they put down their instruments and walked to the front of the stage for a new, mostly a cappella, song that I’m calling “Love and Space”. Bassist Miles Seaton dedicated the number to “every single person who ever lived”. They performed the number as a round, blending their lovely voices.
Then they returned to their seats for their craziest, and most awesome song, “Raising the Sparks”. Starting with a ‘60s-influenced psychedelic guitar line, they build the music louder and louder and then drop it completely in favor of four perfectly-interlocked vocal parts. Perfectly-interlocked, but completely crazed, involving alternating singing and screaming, and supported with head shaking, sky gazing, and tongue wagging. This is rock boiled down to four voices intent on raising sparks, hair, and anything else they can.
It’s hard to know what to do with Akron/Family, given that they’re trying things live (and on record) that absolutely no one else is doing. The closest experience I can imagine to this one would have been seeing MC5 at their peak, only not at their peak, but at the peak I imagine for them. You know, when audience members screamed themselves hoarse and then smashed Detroit as they fell in love on the way home.
If I sound hyperbolic, it’s only because I don’t know how else to get there. How can I convince you to see the band-in-itself when I’m still dizzy from my glimpse?