People-watching is less fun when you’re alone. If I had someone along I could snidely remark that the person in front of me has the collar of his polo flipped up. As it is, I’m left alone to consider the implications of this fashion faux pas—this guy’s presence does not bode well for the show to come. Am I getting pretentious in my old age or more keen in my senses?
I came for Longwave, but before that Brooklyn band’s smooth, spacey atmospherics are allowed to wash over me I’ve got to pay my dues to the gods of publicity propaganda. Dispatches from the normal channels—the buzz of the all-knowing New York hype machine—have brought the Benzos to my attention, and some of the comparisons have even piqued my interest. All Music Guide lists the Verve, Doves, and Radiohead as their influences and Oh My Rockness says that the band “blend(s) experimental dance music with lush guitar-driven rock and a hint of post-punk.” And so I, like my polo-wearing buddy, am all ears as the band takes the stage. Or at least I assume they’re taking the stage; whatever they’re doing it’s incognito, in complete darkness amidst an eerie drone.
Blue/green lights appear and cast us all into the depths of some Disney-animated seascape where you’re not sure if the colors you’re seeing are a reflection of the sky above or the singing seaweed below. The band begins to play: an effects-ridden guitar falls across a pumping dance/jazz/rock rhythm. The parts sound promising but the result is not; it’s a conflicted space atmospheric made even muddier by the entrance of lead singer Christian Celaya’s distant, affected vocals. The drumming is heavy and serious and the flange/delay effects are, well, in full effect. But something isn’t working. There are no discernable hooks, which is ok, but no truly adventurous leaps either. The whole thing reeks of uncertainty, a fear of playing pop and of branching too far from it. The resulting sound is typically generic pop/rock wrapped in a faux space rock exterior.
There are two types of quiet crowds—there’s the calm hush of the reverential and unenthusiastic silence of the bored—and I’m still trying to gauge this one. It doesn’t help that I’m next to the family/friend sector of the audience nervously covering my note pad after each ripping criticism. Mom’s enthusiasm almost moves me to reconsider but then, with no dramatic build, the singer unleashes an apt but unexpected wail so jarring and misplaced that it nearly flips my new friend’s collar back down. Towards the end of the set the singer begs the audience to check out their merchandise, “We’re poor” he says, turning the bottom of his shirt around and exposing a white plastic security tag. “I was forced to steal this shirt.”
“Well,” I note down. “Maybe you shouldn’t have quit your day job.”
The Benzos do bring about a certain catharsis. I realize that a band like Longwave walks a fine line and is bound to attract several tiers of openers: there are those who share the band’s unique talent and those who, while similar, do not. Not that Longwave invented or even broke the garage rock mold; they just do it well. The band manages to infuse a tired formula—spacey garage rock—with new elements, and that’s what sets them above their MANY peers. Which reminds me, why hasn’t Longwave hit it big?
I’m reflecting on this question as the band’s singer hits the stage sporting an untamable white-boy afro. He stands lumbering above us, arms long and lanky - he’s the spitting image of a more hulking Brian Krakow from My So Called Life. Methinks I spot an image issue. The pristine Benzos offer proof positive that a band can get by on their looks. But does Longwave offer any proof of the opposite? They may sound better than a lot of bands out there and they may rock harder - and they do both as they begin to play the title track from their new record There’s a Fire—but perhaps a lack of faux-hawks and matching suits has left them unmarketable. It’s a shame because as Steve Schiltz’s voice writhes in the pulse of phaser effects I’m thinking that they are the hottest shit around.
Blending spiky downstroke rhythm guitar and clear melodic lead, the band builds a solid, if not inventive, foundation that Schiltz exploits by issuing delightfully baritone vocals which segue into powerful falsetto parts. Schiltz’s idiosyncratic vocals drive this band’s dreamlike melodies and his sudden introduction of his upper range on “Tidal Wave” is enough to distinguish the band from its more mediocre brethren - this band toes the line, but they also throw in an extra kick to set themselves apart. They power through a number of tunes from their new record, dropping, to my delight, back for tracks from their RCA debut The Strangest Things. The new songs from There’s a Fire are fine, but not as fleshed out as the older, more road-worn material. The new ones play with less certainty and, juxtaposed against the band’s tested material, they still sound a bit stilted.
Schiltz manages dark, ominous vocals on top of a ruckus build-up for “Meet Me At The Bottom” growling the words “When they’ve got you, they’ve got you by the balls.” Creepy. The band follows the tune with a surprisingly dissonant guitar/noise jam, slamming their guitars into loops of rumbling feedback. Unlike Benzos, Longwave don’t half-ass the out-there moments, they plummet hard into them. Similar distortion interludes are thrown in throughout the set and add an energy to even the band’s most dreary songs. Schiltz frequently bends at the knees and shimmies backwards. He may not look the part, but he’s a rock star through and through.
Towards the end of the set Schiltz takes the mic and thanks the audience, saying that six months ago the band went through something of a shake-up, losing members and gaining new ones, and that they nearly lost everything. They should be thanking someone, because despite their travails the best parts of the band remain intact.
The band ends the show with their lost—to popular airwaves at least—hit “Strangest Things”. It’s not until these moments of utter intrigue that we truly recognize the mediocrity of other garage rock bands. Steaming through the delightfully askew tune the band puts its opener to shame, as well as a number of far more popular acts. This is what Benzos are haphazardly attempting and this is what it would sound like if they knew what they were doing. This is what great rock and roll is made of.
The band begins a second encore tune but I run for the door. “Strangest Things” was the perfect closer and I’m learning to go with my gut, at least while I’m out alone. When navigating the delicate terrain of New York garage rock, especially on your lonesome, you have to keep your wits about you. Like barhopping solo, if you don’t stick to a strict set of standards, you might wake up in bed with Benzos.