Portrait of Dan Higgs as Captain Ahab by Grant Siedlecki
Dan Higgs + Pit Er Pat + WZT Hearts + Necking
May 27, 2006
I’m working on an article for the Voice print edition on Todd P, the guy who’s been booking just about every illicit noise-rock show in Brooklyn for the past five years or so. As he was setting up Saturday night’s show at the Glass House, Todd was talking about why he decided to do the show in that particular space: the place has a total urban-decay aesthetic, and it seems beamed in from the 80s, when people thought of cities as dirty and mysterious and dangerous places where insanity reigned and nothing seemed like it would ever get better. Back then, those images came through in scuzzed-up hardcore like Black Flag and in movies like Mystery Train, but they sort of went away when people started pouring massive amounts of money into cities like New York and rich people started moving back. But every city still has its relics, and some cities are still pretty much nothing but relics, bombed-out wastelands. The Glass House is a relic like that, an art-loft warehouse near the river and the Domino Sugar refinery in Williamsburg where everything is permanently gross and dingy, where some artist has built two enormous mounds of trash in preparation for moving out. That same apocalyptic vibe still exists in the music of the Baltimore band Lungfish, whose frontman, Dan Higgs, played Saturday’s show, and Todd thought that Higgs would make more sense in a dirty, squalid place. He was right.
Here’s how I described Higgs when I was writing about the Lungfish show I saw in Brooklyn last year: “An insane, focused, rabbinical, hulking, hairy, balding man with fierce, intense eyes. He might be in his 50s, but I can’t really tell. He wears worn-out suits, and his hands are covered in tattoos (and he tours as a tattoo artist, so the rest of him probably is as well). Sometimes he walks with a cane.” The “hulking” thing was a bit off; closer up, Higgs is actually pretty slight. And he’s recently cut his bushy Captain Ahab beard into a pointy Rasputin thing, so that part’s a bit off too. Point is: Higgs is a deeply weird man with an unparalleled weight of presence, the sort of person you make sure to keep in the corner of your eye even when he’s just walking around chatting with people and sipping Carlo Rossi out of a plastic cup, which is what he was doing for most of Saturday night. In Lungfish, the band’s hypnotic repetition gives Higgs a certain discipline; his fiery demon-pirate snarl-howls and mystical nonsense lyrics hit harder when he’s roaring them over crashing, serpentine riffs that never, ever change. But without his band keeping him on task, Higgs is a pretty good bet to go completely off the deep end, which is exactly what he did on Saturday night. Higgs started off his show doing an almost unbearably long improvised solo on a damn Jews-harp, boinging away at it before mashing on an effects pedal that turned the sound into straight feedback. This went on for a while, and it was horribly monotonous but still somehow fun to watch. After that, he played a fuzzed-out raga on an acoustic guitar he’d fed through a wah-wah pedal, which made his whole John Fahey meltdown horribly ugly and distended. Then he started reading poetry, something about “hidden in an alternate thorax of revolving dust.” I think it’s awesome that Todd P sometimes picks his venues based on aesthetic considerations rather than practical ones, but practical considerations become an issue after about twenty minutes of this stuff when you’re crammed into a crowded warehouse breathing in dust and wilting in the heat. But just when I couldn’t take it anymore and I felt like I’d pass out if I didn’t go outside for some air, Higgs launched into an amazingly heavy and fierce Lungfishy song, and suddenly he was back on again, a riveting performer doing exactly what he does best. Then he sang that “Hare Krishna” song a cappella. Then it was back to the fucking Jews-harp. And then another amazing almost-Lungfish song. And then he started howling. Things just went on like that, alternating between deeply powerful work and unbearable self-indulgence. It’s been a long time since I saw a performance that frustrating, but the great moments are going to be burned into my head until the day I die, so that was something. I left after Higgs finished. USA is a Monster was headlining, and I like them, but I knew that anything would’ve been anticlimactic after that.
Nothing else on the bill came close to that level of ecstatic weirdness, but there was still a whole lot of dissonance happening. The Chicago band Pit Er Pat traffics in a sort of broken, awkward cabaret about halfway between Deerhoof and Blonde Redhead. Frontwoman Fay Davis-Jeffers’ vocals and keyboards are all languid and narcotic, but Butchy Fuego’s drums keep shifting in and out of place, which makes everything come out jagged and anxious. Sometimes, their stuff lapses into straight-up cocktail-jazz, but even then, they don’t glide; they wiggle. At their best, the bass overwhelms everything else, and they tap into a serious face-melting groove. But then I like Blonde Redhead a whole lot better than Deerhoof, so of course I would say that.
WZT Hearts (you say it like “wet hearts”) is an electronic noise-improv thing from Baltimore; Jason Urick, who plays laptop for them, is a pretty good friend of mine. We’ve got a long-running joke about how I absolutely can’t fucking stand his band, how it all just sounds like horrible nothingness with no rapping or anything. They’re slipping, though; on Saturday night, they came closer to being tolerable than I’ve ever heard them do before. They started out doing warped fuzz-drone, all static and feedback, just like always. But then the drummer locked into a ramshackle tribal thing, and it was still total zone-out stuff, but it started to sound almost musical. It’s hard for me to judge this stuff on its merits since I don’t know what those merits exactly are, but it was the first time I made it through an entire WZT Hearts performance, so maybe that’s saying something. Also, they played loud enough that they actually shook dirt loose from the ceiling; it kept falling on me, which was pretty disgusting.
Apparently Necking is usually a three-piece, two drummers and one other guy, but one drummer had just broken a rib, so they played as a duo on Saturday. When I walked in, they were doing something vaguely Eastern, thrashy drumming with muezzin wails and guitar drones overtop. It was roiling and mysterious, and I liked it. But then the non-drummer guy stopped playing guitar and just let his guitar sit on the floor and feed back while he screeched through a grainy, distorted mic and the drummer erratically spazzed out. It was fierce and ugly, and I wasn’t into it at all.