Mercury Rev in Woodstock
Friday, December 16 2005
This morning was warm enough that my hydronic thawing system proved unnecessary, but isn't how it always is? You always have the infra-structure in place for that second occurrence of the problem you bought it to solve.
This evening featured another alternative-rock-based benefit for the Hudson Valley's other farm animal sanctuary, the one in Willow that calls itself Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. Tonight's music would be provided by Mercury Rev, a band that calls Kingston home but rarely plays there. The opening act would be a peculiar experimental band fronted by J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. fame. As usual for such events, we went, as did Kathy, the director of the Catskill Animal Sanctuary, though Kathy claims to "hate" loud guitar rock, which tonight's music was surely destined to be.
We had dinner with Kathy before the show at The Little Bear, the small cozy Chinese restaurant in Bearsville.
Word to the wise: never order anything at the Little Bear containing tofu skin (or whatever that substance was). It's nasty, and they flavor it completely inappropriately with whole heads of star anise. The use of massive unground chunks of woody sweet spices in savory food reminded me of the Pakistani rice I've been eating for the past three or four mornings. (Gretchen had made this rice from a package of uncertain origins. It was very salty and chock full of whole cloves and intact pods of cardemom. Gretchen found it mostly inedible, but it made a passable breakfast for me.)
The show was next door at the Bearsville Theatre, which is much bigger and swanker than I remembered it from the only other time I'd been there (to see a movie about the travails of the Onteora School District). In addition to being a Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary function, the Mercury Rev show was also a live presentation of the Woodstock rock station WDST, for whom I occasionally do computer work. So I knew people at tonight's show from two different overlapping scenes. There were also a lot of known and unknown hipsters, including most of the hip people one normally only encounters at their day jobs as cashiers or waiters. Everyone who was anyone in the area was there, plus a various contingents from elsewhere. One woman from Troy named Dara recognized me from back when she was a resident of Harkness, my old Oberlin College Co-op, and she introduced herself by asking if I'd ever lived in Ohio. The only thing I remembered about her is that she is the only woman the weight of whose breasts I once knew, both individually and together. Both were large numbers.
After an "opening-opening" performance of a solo woman with a loud guitar and an archipelago of pedals, J. Mascis and his band took the stage as the "opening" act. Evidently he's "grown" muscially since Dinosaur Jr., because in this band he was neither singing nor playing guitar. Instead he sat in front of some sort of table-like electric stringed instrument, kept his gaze directed shoeward, and thwacked out chords monotonously. Meanwhile a bassist, flutist, and drummer played. From a distance mostly what one heard was the flutist and bassist, and the flute sounded like it was playing various passages from familiar classical music. Despite the celebrity factor of J. Mascis, few people were listening. Later, when Mercury Rev took the stage and the floor flooded with eager hipsters, I saw Mascis out in the lobby area with his little waifish girlfriend. She was a total hottie of course. When you're J. Mascis, you can have your pick of the hot indie chicks.
Nothing by Mercury Rev has ever struck a chord with me, but seeing them live on stage I couldn't help but be impressed and intrigued, despite the atrocious muddy quality of the Bearsville Theatre's sound system. A Mercury Rev show, you see, is much more than just a rock concert. During the entire show they had movie clips playing in perfect sync with their songs, sometimes overlain with poetic words of wisdom (similar to Chinese fortunes except they hadn't had to be translated from Chinese). The breadth and obscurity of the video clips implied that someone in the band has a good source for such things and lots of experience with film.
Most of the songs were slow, theatric pieces, and the vocalist, Jonathan Donahue, attacked most of his work with a theatric groove familiar from the performance of David Bowie or that other Mercury, Freddie.
Donahue has that rare quality necessary for the singing of all great rock and roll: he seems to channel a wise ancient spirit through the distortion-free prism of an eight year old boy. Sometimes he's channeling nature herself, say, in the form of a bird, and he's flapping his wings in a way that seems ridiculous at first, and then, as you grasp his unqualified sincerity, it seems profoundly touching.
All the musicians seemed to be having a blast, and the crowd responded enthusiastically. During one song the band even let the roadie, a wiry lad with long hair and a sense of urgency completely absent in the band members themselves, rock out on electric guitar. His urgency continued he did all he could to justify his position as the seventh member of the band.
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