[24 November 2008]
It was a Thursday night in Houston, with a pile of concert options. You could have gone to see Weezer at Reliant Arena, the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow at Warehouse Live, the Butthole Surfers at The Meridian, or Dredg at The Meridian’s Red Room. Under normal circumstances I would have given Weezer another chance to wow me (they were merely okay when I saw them back in 2003), especially since my girlfriend opted to go see them. But Dredg has been impressive every time I’ve seen them play, so I couldn’t pass them up.
Instead of going the logical route and opening both of the Meridan’s venue doors and keeping attendees of each concert in their respective rooms, the Meridian opted to stream everybody through their regular entrance. I arrived just before they began letting the hundreds of queued-up Butthole Surfers fans in, so I was able to walk right up. This setup meant that every person at the Meridian had to walk through the smaller Red Room first, whether they were going to see Dredg or The Surfers. Dredg’s atmospheric hard rock sound draws a mixture of indie rockers, metalheads, and progressive rock fans, and all of those types were in attendance among the several hundred fans in the Red Room. The reunited original lineup of the Butthole Surfers, on the other hand, drew a lot of middle-aged punks who looked like they’d been living hard for the past 20 years. There were plenty of regular-looking people heading for the Meridian’s big room, too, but the folks in their early middle age who looked like they were closer to retirement age really stood out. It wasn’t the most disparate mix of crowds possible, but it did make for an interesting people-watching experience.
First up was Division Day, a Los Angeles quartet who played a set of upbeat, keyboard-heavy rock. The crowd response from the Dredg fans was enthusiastic, and a few of their songs really grabbed me. They were a solid group with decent energy who made the most of their 45-minute set. Dredg took the stage shortly before 10 p.m. and opened, curiously, with “Triangle”. Like the rest of the El Cielo album, it’s an excellent song, but its whirlwind five-minute journey through about four completely different sections did not make for a very coherent show starter. The audience didn’t seem to mind, though, singing along and cheering right from the start. The band followed that oddball choice with the speedy rocker “Ode to the Sun”, though, and the concert really took off from that point. The sound mixing and acoustics in the Meridian are generally top-notch, and this show was no exception. Singer Gavin Hayes’ voice was pushed out to the front of the mix, which was the correct call for a band with such a strong vocalist. But the guitar, bass, and drums were also all clearly audible (even wearing earplugs) in the small room. The volume was never overwhelming, but it was also loud enough to keep any sound from the Butthole Surfers in the next room from bleeding over while Dredg was playing.
The bulk of the set was comprised of songs from the El Cielo and Catch Without Arms albums, while debut Leitmotif was ignored this time out. The band just finished recording a new album, and they tested out three new songs as well. Each of these songs was interesting. One of them was basically a 6/8 power ballad with some weird guitar breaks, and another featured shifting time signatures and intense passages of distorted guitar. The new material seemed to pick up from where 2005’s Catch Without Arms left off, combining more pop-oriented songwriting with the atmospherics of their earlier work. The set also included an extended version of Catch Without Arms’ title track, which inspired a huge sing-along from the audience, as did El Cielo single “Same Ol’ Road”. The set lasted about 90 minutes, and ranged from the laid-back “Sang Real” to the hard-hitting “The Tanbark is Hot Lava”, with plenty of songs that fell in between (“Jamais Vu”, “New Heart Shadow”).
The band closed with a pair of songs that showed off Hayes’ unusual lap steel guitar work. Most often associated with country music, Dredg uses the instrument mainly for sound effects. “Bug Eyes” is an exception to this, as it features a distinctive squalling guitar line that opens the tune and then returns in the bridge. The crowd went nuts for this one, which is possibly the band’s biggest single to date. “The Canyon Behind Her”, with its operatic chorus and chorale-style ending, was the final song of the night. Hayes pounded away on the lap steel with a drumstick in between the verses, and the band used a recording of the album’s choir vocals at the end of the song to great effect. As usual with Dredg, there was no encore, just a cool groove that the band plays as the road crew breaks down the set piece by piece, including the drum set. Drummer Dino Campanella was eventually left as the last band member on the stage, playing just a hi-hat cymbal and snare drum. When he finally stopped and stood up, we were left to file out with the sounds of the Butthole Surfers echoing through from the other room.