The strings on the tinny, hard-clunking banjo spin the dark notes of their master, whirling like they’re caught in an angry astral torrent. As the speakers crackle with distortion, a curly haired kid shakes tent-revival style, whipping his fingers franticly through the air.
He’s clearly on drugs.
10 Nov 2006: Southpaw Brooklyn, NY
I’m not, but damned if I’m not feeling that same electricity. It’s early in the set, and Califone have already whipped the room into an urbanized, alt-Americana fury, using the crisp edge of country to reckless, noisy ends. It’s a dark energy, rife with crude stories of heartbreak and horror—the real essence of country music. There’s the feel of whiskey soaked nights with no romance, and the dry caress of dust and dementia. Whether or not this country fried homage—modernized by keyboards, distortion, and sequenced beats—is reverent to the beer-swirling originals is inconsequential. Califone ramble with the seedy swagger of real beer-bellied Western warriors.
When the band’s ferocious jam comes to an end, everything goes quiet. What once was a room filled with the violent popping of neutrons and protons is now a semi-static pool. Singer Tim Rutili warbles his Tweedy-esque drawl (that’s a comparison not a criticism, since both singers have had the same pipes for about as long) in controlled motions, waiting to sweep out each word until he’s absolutely ready. When they do come, the syllables sputter together in shaky, chaotic mumbles.
In his days with the band’s birthmother, the oft-admired Red Red Meat, Rutili unleashed his words in more erratic bursts, screaming with a lisp so ferocious that it inspired Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock to call RRM his favorite indie act. In this small Brooklyn club, the band born of that one displays similar enthusiasm—especially in moments like the one described above—but, more often than not, the songs are tightly reined. These boys recognize that there’s a difference between riding a slow horse and holding the rope on a champion sprinter. Like fellow Chicago-scene elite Wilco, Califone have flirted with both melody and unrestrained, avant-garde excess. But, unlike their more famous peers, Califone’s journey has ticked counter-clockwise, working away from the all-out anarchy of their earlier records.
In fact, a passing listen to the band’s new album might betray its experimental background altogether: Roots and Crowns is no barn-burner, rather a study in off-kilter country, folk, and blues. When the band plays songs from the record, it’s with a more plodding, somber style, Rutili’s whiskered face straining with his words.
Of course, that’s just the new stuff. The band’s new penchant for straightforward melody doesn’t keep them from trotting out the dirty jams. Throughout the set, they waffle back and forth between the old and new, caressing melody before destroying it in long, freeform freak-outs. These later bits build distortion on the clanking of drummer Ben Massarella’s cowbell, and the spiraling sounds of banjo and keyboards mash into one another. At key moments, the band expands, and two brass players join the clanging and skronking, creating a down-and-dirty ruckus that casts Rutili as Tom Waits’ higher-voiced cousin. Massarella pulls double duty, hammering the bass drum as he taps electric tinkles from a keyboard set to his left. Rutili, meanwhile, pounds a second mic (a tiny tape-recorder one) against his leg before placing it next to the real one to double his vocal. As he wrings out his words, the mini-mic adds a delightfully grainy edge.
By the end of the set, the kid from earlier is burnt beyond repair. The energy has fried his bones, shaken the blood from his veins; he’s visibly sick with the musical shakes. He puts both hands atop his head, his elbows reaching out like he’s a robber being busted. His lips purse, opening wide, and his face takes a look of overwhelmed terror. He’s succumbed to the band’s sordid exorcisms; he’s lost sight of himself in the face of their fire-and-brimstone banging.
He’s clearly on drugs.
I’m not, but boy do I wish I was.