I am finally in my bed. I stretch my legs out under the covers and lean my head back into the pillow, sinking as I do so. I haven’t slept but maybe seven hours in the last two days, and I didn’t make up for the lack of quantity with higher quality–no, this was sleeping-bag on hard floor sleep, sleep with a sweatshirt for a pillow, sleep that leaves your collarbones crying for days. I’d just driven back from Santa Barbara, six hours with In-N-Out, after celebrating a friend’s graduation (and celebrating with great abandon). I was exhausted, and for a moment I thought, maybe I should just stay in tonight.
That thought didn’t last long. There was a buzzing in my head that wouldn’t abate–thanks, shitty club with a terrible sound system. I needed melody to counteract the white noise of dying frequencies. I like to say that I try to surround myself with people who say, “yes.” It was time for me to live up to my own standards. I needed to get my ass up and over to San Francisco to see Torres.
I tried to sleep on BART, listening to Four Tet’s Pink with a black sweatshirt over my head. I set an alarm in case I fell asleep–no rookie mistakes here. I couldn’t sleep, though, and so I pretended I was asleep. It amounted to the same thing for everyone but me.
* * * * *
I walked out the wrong end of the Civic Center stop, which is par for the course, found Mike, and walked to 155 Fell. A line had formed, and not a big or particularly rowdy one–probably an effect of the Sunday evening date. Mike and I made our way in. The Rickshaw is longer than it is wide, with a bar that opens up to an area that can probably hold a couple hundred people packed. On this night I don’t think more than a hundred showed up, though, so even though I sat through the opener it wasn’t hard to find a prime place to stand once the co-headliners came on. I hadn’t realized it when I bought the ticket, but it was a double bill, with Lady Lamb and Torres sharing top billing and support being provided by Paige & the Thousand. Paige, who mentioned that she used to sing with Noah & the Whale, played a competent but short set that Mike described as “arena Neko Case” (probably a bit of an upsell, but gives you an idea).
When Lady Lamb the Beekeeper came on, I had no expectations, because I’d never heard her play. This isn’t common for me–I usually try to do my research before a show–but the wild weekend had precluded that possibility. Yet, after this experience, I might try to let myself be surprised a little more often. Frankly, Lady Lamb knocked me flat. She opened with an a cappella invocation that set the haunting tone for the rest of the night, her guitar resting for the only moment that night.
The whole set was played solo, which contributed immensely to the vibe. My grasping-in-the-dark equations for her sound that night were Janis Joplin meets Moldy Peaches, or, at times, a female Jeff Mangum who knew more than 3 chords. Joplin, because Lady Lamb could wail when she wanted, and the songs had that dark character I can only honestly associate with the blues. Moldy Peaches–who I admittedly don’t listen to–because of the innocent tumble-down lyricism of “Milk Duds” and admittedly cutesy inflections to “Crane Your Neck.” Jeff Mangum because of the multisegmented songs and the chanting, wild incantations that found their way into her lyrics–see “I’m a ghost and you all know it.” Her guitar playing also occasionally reminded me of Isaac Brock’s more melodic moments; the noodling before “Bird Balloons” finale sounds like something from This Is a Long Drive, and that wasn’t the only time I was reminded of the boys from Issaquah. “It’s a goddamn joke that we can hurt so much even in the sun,” Lady Lamb wailed at one point, and the sentiment might have fit in on any number of indie-rock records on the wimp-twee-emo spectrum of the last twenty years.
Despite the comparisons, when Lady Lamb walked off, I felt confident I’d seen something I’d never seen before. I felt renewed. Her style was unique (after having listened to a couple cuts on YouTube, I think I actually prefer her sound without a full band, too). I can’t say whether it was the circumstances or something that I’ll continue to connect to in her music, but in that moment, she had prescribed me a wonderful medicine for a disease I hadn’t even known was afflicting me. I certainly wasn’t tired anymore.
* * * * *
By now it’s been awhile and I haven’t even mentioned Torres, which is on purpose. If this is a concert review I should give you an idea of what it was like to see the show. As with any ethnography, I have to own up, at some point, to the fact that my perspective is limited, my reportage biased.Bias may not be the right word, though; it implies insincerity, or more precisely inaccuracy. We may say a cricket fan is biased against enjoying a baseball game, but that does not make his or her displeasure any less real, does it?
* * * * *
I would call her music revelation, but revelation comes from the sky. And this music isn’t airy. It’s earth music, grounded and physical. Mackenzie Scott, the be-hatted frontwoman of Torres–she may be Torres, it’s always hard to tell in these situations–made mention of her Georgia roots, and she crossed the Appalachians to go to school in Nashville. These songs crackle with the same old staticky magic that haunts those old, old mountains (sometimes literally; there’s a generous helping of string squawk on record and live, and I have zero problem with that). Scott’s voice is warm and moves between registers with familiarity. The songs were excellent: she blew through her incredibly strong record and even added a delicate, lovelorn, frighteningly intimate solo cut apparently written days ago. While there is certainly a dark tinge to the record, it’s by no means one-dimensional, with sing-song lullabyes like “Don’t Run Away, Emilie” and “Moon & Back” balanced by bluesy rockers “Honey” and “Winter.” The beginning of “Chains” even had me exclaim out loud, “witch house!” If anything, the next step for Torres will be in combining these many sides to create songs that don’t always follow the familiar soft-loud-soft formula. In concert she showed signs of doing so, turning up the volume for an impressive solo on “Waterfall” that doesn’t show up on the record. Noise, during this show, was always purposeful.
The origin of the music seems, to me, sort of similar to EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints, in that they both seem to invoke ghosts left and right. Just as EMA called out to her great-grandparents in “The Grey Ship,” Scott takes the long view, too, noting in “When Winter’s Over” that “even the leaves grow weary of the trees,” then describing on “Come to Terms” that “just because the two of us/will both grow old in time/don’t mean that we should grow old together.” It’s startling maturity from someone who is, frankly, my age.
And that’s just the thing. This show felt special, it felt different from many other shows I’ve seen, and less because of the music and more because of my own relationship to the music. They were peers. This is an artist who’s done something very impressive, but whose situation I can still relate to. The backing band looked stiff at times, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was their first tour. It was Scott’s first time in California. Scott allowed herself a rock-star move or two–starting with her back to the crowd before wheeling around for the first verse of a song–but she also spent a long time tuning between songs, suffered a false start, and needed the bassist’s help to program her keyboard. While I know some people find such moments amateurish, I find them endearing and genuine, serving to bring the performer and audience closer. It was the sort of show where you feel like you can see the genesis of every song, the absentminded plucking that turned into a riff, the corny journaling that becomes the lyrics shouted back by fans. In one milieu, the transparency of the process might not seem so great, but at this point in my life, I think it engendered an even greater connection.
At one point she asked the crowd whether we liked sad songs. In the front row, I leaned over and told Mike: “Nobody should ever worry about me killing myself. I get too much from feeling sad.” I might have imagined it, but I think I saw Torres smile.