When people ask me who my favorite band is, I usually say Oneida, except for when I say Mission of Burma. (Occasionally, when I get really loaded and forget that I’m not 15 anymore, I say Van Halen, but I think we should throw that out as a sampling error.) The point is that it’s almost always been one of the two, day in, day out, for my entire life. I’m far more consistent about this than my favorite color or food or city in the world (New York…no, Rome…no, Paris…no, Budapest…no, Chicago.)
So, even when I learned I’d be spending all morning and most of the afternoon at a high school cross-country ski meet in northern New Hampshire, 150 miles from home, that I’d have to drive the additional 100 miles to Boston and then back home, I said, okay. Of course, I didn’t know I’d have to parallel park for the first time in decades. That might have tipped the scales.
In any case, after a semi-heroic effort, I arrive at Paradise only a few minutes late, hearing the unmistakable thwack and burble of Oneida’s “Up with People” as I approach the hall. (You have to go down a long tunnel-like hallway at Paradise to get in; it helps if you don’t think about what would happen if there were a fire.) The club is already shoulder-to-shoulder, but, though packed, there’s a curious lack of energy in the audience. “Up With People,” the undeniable rocker on Oneida’s latest record is a fantastic, headbanging groove. And the band is pounding it out furiously, rifle-shot snares clattering off manic keyboard grooves, the whole thing running like a suicidal freight train inching off the tracks. But even people near the stage, the ones who have, perhaps, staked out turf for the Burma set, seem bemused. “They have to change it up,” says a guy behind me. “All those hard beats…they’ve gotta do something different.”
Well, okay, they roll out “History’s Great Navigators” next, one of the softer, gently percolating songs from Happy New Year. Though toned down on the record, the beat is played up live, and the vocals, mixed high enough to understand on the CD, fall into the background. The result is a new Oneida song that sounds like an old Oneida song—hedonistic, pre-verbal, and tinged with psych-folk harmonies. I’d been wondering how they’d get their new material across on stage, but, as it turns out, it’s less different from the back catalog than I’d supposed.
Oneida use repetition like a psychedelic drug. Their riffs drive furiously, but in short, tight circles. The combination of adrenaline and stasis is unsettling, nerve-racking, unbearable if you’re trying to control the experience, illuminating if you just go with it. The crowd seems mostly immune, however, even as the band careens through ‘60s rock-leaning “The Life You Prefer” and the short, sharp violence of “$50 Tea.” It’s perhaps a last-ditch effort to win the people over—or possibly an attempt to punish them—when the band closes with a furious, fast-paced song built on one syllable, one riff, and one beat, all pounded over and over again for ten minutes. It’s maddening. It’s hilarious. It’s, in its own way, brilliant.
Burma comes on after a short break, the core trio of Roger Miller, Clint Conley, and Peter Prescott (his drum kit shielded by plexiglass to protect Miller’s hearing) on stage and tape manipulator Bob Weston hidden up in the balcony. The band tears through three cuts from The Obliterati to start, the fierce pop chorus of “2wice” leading into a monster-heavy stop-start “Spider’s Web,” and the delicate cymbal and twitchy guitars of “Donna Sumeria” turning unexpectedly loud at the bridge. Prescott is wearing a shirt that says “Having fun yet?” and it seems clear that the answer is “yes,” the audience has woken up now. A good quarter of them—a mix of weathered ex-punks and fresh-faced kids—are chanting along to the new songs. The last time I saw Mission of Burma, there was a definite surge in energy for the older songs. Still, the spooky, reverberating guitar intro to “Mica” (from Vs.) catches some of us off guard, sort of like seeing an old friend from high school unexpectedly. It’s the first of a clutch of older songs sprinkled through the two-set program. Some are well-known classics (“That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” “(This is not a) Photograph,” “Academy Fight Song,” and “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate”) and others less familiar (“Secrets”). Still, neither set feels overly nostalgic. “Mica” leads right into a new song, its heavily-altered guitar part clearly related to older tunes like “Trem Two,” but still distinct.
Both the old and the new tunes are studded with strange sounds. Weston is at the decks feeding vocal bits forward and backward into the mix, just as Martin Swope did in the band’s first incarnation. In the second set, Weston conjures waves of almost sub-sonic vibrations, sounds that rise from the floor and are felt rather than heard.
Earlier Conley spotted Chris Brokaw in the audience, and towards the end Brokaw comes up to play bass on “Buckets of Flowers, Porno Mags” from the first Consonant album. Consonant, if you missed it, was the band that broke Conley’s 15-year absence from music. They made two wonderful albums before Conley became permanently distracted by the Burma juggernaut. If you want to be negative and find one thing that sucks about Burma Part 2, it’s that there will be no more Consonant. Of course, just for this night, there sort of was. I see Brokaw giving somebody a giant shrug as he leaves the stage. Clearly he was as surprised as anyone, and he probably hadn’t played the song in years.
It’s a dangerous thing seeing two well-loved bands in a single night (not to mention the surprise reincarnation of a third). Expectations are high. Disappointment is possible. Parking is scarce. But if you get the chance to see bands like Mission of Burma and Oneida, I’d suggest you take it, even if you have to parallel park.