Photo credit: Kelly Miller
Photo credit: Kelly Miller
If you’ve never seen Les Savy Fav before, your first reaction upon seeing the band take the stage might be “who the hell let that homeless guy onstage?” Yes, frontman Tim Harrington, dressed in stylish gray sweat pants, sporting a frazzled beard and a wild look in his eye, looks far more like the bum you stepped over on the way to the club than the average rocker who you see inside the club. Harrington’s crazy-man presence is even more jarring when the clean-cut, attractive appearance of his bandmates, guitarist Seth Jabour, drummer Harrison Haynes and bassist Syd Butler, is taken into account. However, once the band starts playing, you start to understand the band’s peculiar logic—Harrington is an insane dynamo, shrieking his lines into the mic, staggering around the stage, baiting the audience, swilling from a bottle of wine, wandering out into the crowd—it seems like there’s very little he won’t do in the interest of entertainment. The band, on the other hand, is the picture of economical order—Haynes pounding the shit out of his drums with a big smile on his face, Jabour studiously rocking out to his angular, dissonant, complicated riffs, and Butler capably holding down the bottom end while looking vaguely amused at Harrington’s antics.
For those unfamiliar with the Fav, perhaps some background info is in order. Harrington, Jabour, Butler and original second guitarist Gibb Slife formed the band around 1995, in Providence, Rhode Island, all members having attended the Rhode Island School of Design at one point or another. The band became renowned for their amazing live shows, with Harrington’s antics leading the way. The band released its debut, 3/5 in 1997 to rave reviews. The band proceeded to tour its collective ass off, and a year later, brought drummer Harrison Haynes (ex-Hellbender) into the fold to replace Patrick Mahoney. ‘99 saw the release of the much heralded The Cat and the Cobra. At this point, guitarist Gibb Slife quit the band, and the remaining members marched on as a four-piece. Although the loss of Slife rendered playing many of their old songs almost impossible due to their complex two-guitar interplay, Jabour picked up the slack with a sampling unit and a delay pedal, effectively enabling him to play two guitar parts at once. The loss of the second guitar also freed the band to explore slightly different stylistic terrain, as 2000’s Emor: Rome Written Upside Down EP and last year’s Go Forth amply demonstrate. These releases show the Fav experimenting a bit more with keyboards and other new-wave touches, and moving a bit further away from the angular, DC-inspired riffage that characterized their earlier works. Not that they’ve even come close to abandoning the rock: far from it, as tracks like “Crawling Can Be Beautiful” and “Tragic Monsters” from Go Forth are songs that approximate a jackhammer to the skull, but simultaneously cause your body to jerk around uncontrollably to Haynes’ funky-ass beats. However, Go Forth also sees the band spreading out and experimenting with their sound with the more atmospheric “The Slip” and “One to Three”. The pared-down lineup has also allowed their sound to open up a bit—you can now hear all the instruments better, whereas their early works, sound-wise, tended to blend together in a clangorous, trebly mess of guitars.
While Go Forth may introduce a slightly kinder, gentler recorded Les Savy Fav, live, the band is just as unpredictable and off-the-hook as ever. As I mentioned above, most of the attention at a Les Savy Fav show is invariably directed towards Harrington. He’s the wild card, the one to watch. I mean, how often is it that you’re at a rock show, watching the band play, and you turn your attention away from the stage for a second or two, and turn back only to find that the singer has disappeared? The next thing you know, you turn around, and there he is, i>behind you, gripping the microphone in his teeth, hanging from a pipe that runs along the ceiling in the back of the club! About halfway though the show, it became a bit more apparent why Harrington was clad in sweats at the beginning of the show. It wasn’t an anti-fashion statement—it’s just that they’re easier to take off than regular clothes are. Now, we’re not getting into indecent exposure territory here (thankfully!)—under his sweats, Harrington had a bright red wrestler’s leotard on, which he proceeded to strip down to…in the middle of the audience. After this, he leapt back onstage and played the remainder of the show in this rather ludicrous outfit. As my girlfriend whispered to me at one point, “he…has…no…shame!”
All this discussion of Harrington’s eccentric onstage behavior should in no way detract from the versatility and skill that the rest of the band brings to the table. In total, the band comes across as something like a less menacing Jesus Lizard; if not necessarily in sound, definitely in intent. Harrington carries on with his schtick, while Jabour, Haynes and Butler busy themselves with rocking the fuck out with serious intent. Like the Jesus Lizard, whose frontman, David Yow was even more notorious for his onstage antics than Harrington, the remaining three members look as if they’re doing their best to ignore their charismatic singer, and merely dig their heels in to play their instruments as well as they can. This works marvelously, with Harrington stirring up a whirlwind of activity while his bandmates provide a calm visual counterpoint to his nonstop motion.
Focusing almost exclusively on material from their latest full-length, Go Forth, the foursome hurtled along with barely-controlled kinetic energy, the band in a constant rush to keep up with Harrington’s intense stage presence. To say that it was an entertaining show would be a vast understatement, for in addition to shocking and alarming his audience, Harrington’s main modus operandi seems to be to make sure that they leave his show having had the best time possible. At one point, with Haynes laying down a typically funky backbeat, Harrington urged the audience to clap along by saying “Come on! No one ever regrets clapping! Nobody ever leaves a show and says ‘god damn, I sure wish I hadn’t clapped’!” Tellingly, the audience obeyed, and the whole room was quickly transformed into a sea of clapping hands. Although it may seem like a minor point, it’s simply indicative of how dressing up in a funny outfit, getting onstage and cranking out amazing, intense, spastic rock n’ roll has the tendency to make people shut up and listen—and do what you tell them.