Photo credit: Danielle St. Laurent
Rainer Maria has been touring for what seems to be close to three years straight, non-stop, traversing the country and home back again to (no sleep ‘til) Brooklyn. And no matter how long it’s been, how many shows that have come before, or how many shows are coming after, one thing is for certain. This band is playing as if this is it—the last show of their near decade-long career.
2 Oct 2003: Mercury Lounge New York
Having recently headlined the more stately manors of Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza, Rainer Maria—and the audience gathered at the packed-to-the-hilt Mercury Lounge—seemed excited to be in a bit more intimate setting. And in their hometown, no less—if a band that tours this much can really have a home in the traditional sense. The band joked that “it’s good to be home in NYC,” albeit for a 48-hour waiting period before hitting the road again. Not really enough time for decompression, but with the way they play, you wonder if they ever completely decompress. People try to label this band as “emo,” but only in the same way that Joe Strummer must have been “emo” when he wailed “Death or Glory”.
The band plays tight and with abandon. It’s as if for their pre-game warmup they pile hands and whoever’s on bottom grips a rail of electricity instead of shouting “go team.” From then on the three operate as one—the energy is so raw that it’s impossible not to get caught up in the current.
Singer/bassist Caithlin DeMarrais pleads for her life in her lyrics, but always, always goes out with a bang and never a whimper. So loud and yet so dear. Forlorn but hopeful, her lyrics connect in such an immediate way that you’re instantly affected. Like all good lyricists, she conveys emotion without spelling it out—you feel what she’s communicating without completely understanding the meaning of the words themselves. Not surprising that she and guitarist Kyle Fischer met in a University of Wisconsin poetry class, and organized late-night extra discussion classes at which they were the only attendees.
Beginning with a firecracker opener “Mystery and Misery” (from their most recent LP, Long Knives Drawn), her words jump to life. (“From the beginning, I made it clear.” Indeed.) DeMarrais possesses the singularly unique ability to scream melodically. Never seen anything like it before. Her voice, and indeed the band’s sound, shrinks and swells like a tidal wave. It’s the Sundays struck by lightning, incessantly.
Fischer’s axework matches the urgency and intensity of DeMarrais’ vocals, but with the innocent, unadulterated joy of an overstimulated Ritalin-deprived child prodigy. To say Fischer has an engaging stage presence would be a catastrophic understatement. He leaps about the stage as if in the throes of a fit inspired by a Baptist faith healer. He plays the guitar as if someone just handed the thing to him, and he’s discovered to his own amazement that he’s already a genius at playing. He dances and sweats and leaps, until sweat is flying off the end of his nose and his guitar onto the first three rows of the audience. He paints notes like Jackson Pollack—seemingly flailing his arm against the guitar with no possible semblance of order, until you’re overcome by the fact that he’s created this reverberating craggy rockwall of sound that is part The Edge, part Corgan, and entirely more fun than either.
You will never catch drummer Bill Keuhn singing along to DeMarrais’ earnest vocals or nodding his head to Fischer’s fuzzy reverberating guitar. Keuhn could care less that his bandmates are upfront and that he’s behind them, because he’s not. Instead, he’s got a certain detached glare that reveals that Keuhn is someplace else, or maybe just hovering above, the way one looms over a chess board deciding what move to make next. All the while, though, he’s the one taking the raw materials and creating the bombast. One of the audience members who’d never seen them before confessed afterward he’d been mesmerized by Keuhn’s drumwork the entire show and couldn’t take his eyes off him. He’s a syncopated, playing-to-the-beat-of-your-own-drum drummer a la Stewart Copeland, with the focused rage of Jimmy Chamberlin. Whoa. Yeeah.
The band’s best offerings of the evening were all from Long Knives Drawn, including “CT Catholic”, “The Double Life” and “Ears Ring”. As always, the band unveiled a few brand new songs—they’re prolific enough that one expects they could probably crank out an album every year if it weren’t for the constant touring.
The one ballad of the evening, “Rise”, began the two-song encore (“I’m laying in the soil, is it time for me to rise”). The sole reprieve from the aural onslaught that comprised the rest of the set, this song hushed the once revved audience to the point you could hear a tear drop. It was as if the band was saying, “We can break your heart as fast as we can rock your world.” And aren’t those the two reasons we listen to music in the first place?
Damn savants. How do they do it? It seems impossible that three people, only three, can render music this big and important. I’m no Rush fan, but all of a sudden, I can relate. One is confounded by the fact that music can be played so loud and fast and still retain its pure beauty. Rainer Maria’s stage energy is so infectious, one feels they’ve just chugged a dozen or so Red Bulls by the set’s conclusion. When an audience is so amped they need to “come down” after a show, you know the band is doing something right up there on stage.