Wednesday, February 8
Better than: Any California jamband since Garcia died.
A great rock guitarist needs a signature affectation. Ethan Miller’s happens to be an abrupt upstrum that, combined with a backward stagger, probably makes him something of an onstage hazard to his bandmates. When he really gets into it, as he does with elemental regularity, the Howlin Rain leader resembles a spasmodic marionette under the influence of a power greater than himself—call it the power of rawk. With his long thinning hair, big black beard, and “special shirt”—as he referred to the spiffy brown vintage-’70s number he was sporting—Miller also sometimes resembles a defrocked rabbi on the run. And when he opens his mouth, the history of classic arena-rock vocals passes before your ears in a full-throated wail embracing the combined spirits of Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Leslie West, Greg Rolie, and the ghost of Freddy Mercury.
Reassembled from a guitar-freakout parts kit scavenged from Comets on Fire, Earthless, Sunburned Hand of Man, and other cosmic Californians, Howlin Rain embodies the new West Coast improvised rock aesthetic. Using the classic-rock canon as their template, East Coasters like Phish, moe., and the techno-fueled Disco Biscuits have been melting faces with ecstatic abandon and Zappa-esque virtuosity since the ’90s—and you can feel the embers cooling. Punkier, scruffier, and younger Californians like Wooden Shjips, Drunk Horse, Jonathan Wilson, and Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound, on the other hand, have been simmering on the back burner for much of the past decade, biding their time while waiting to explode, maybe. Howlin Rain’s Rick Rubin-produced neoclassic tour de force The Russian Wilds should help thrash that breakout’s path when it emerges next week.
Howlin Rain’s set began with six of their new album’s first seven songs played in a row. More forceful if less nuanced than the album, the songs seem to emerge from a Humboldt County teenager’s epic post-harvest ceremony fever dreams. Miller’s “Self Made Man” is a ruthless thug, “all blood and bones.” “Phantom in the Valley” describes an apocalyptic vision viewed “past the walnut orchards and the barroom abbatoirs.” “I swear I am a reasonable man” sings Miller from the point of view of the guy who’s just committed suicide in “Strange Thunder.” And “Cherokee Werewolf” sounds like a James Gang hit doing time as a John Landis treatment. Dark, literate stuff, in short.
Less about improvisation than delivering a great variety of pedal-punching sounds with Crazy Horse backbone, Howlin Rain is the Wagnerian figment of every psych-rock blogger’s fantasy. Buttressed by drummer Raj Ojha and bassist Joel Robinow (sporting a Mountain T-shirt and chugging beer from a pitcher), Miller, Earthless guitarist Isaiah Mitchell, and Drunk Horse keyboardist-guitarist Cyrus Comiskey created a stormy fracas for what Comiskey deems the venue’s “sparse but powerful” assemblage. For their encore, the quintet attacked Richard and Linda Thompson’s “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” before concluding with the back-to-back and dueling-guitar rockrobatics of “Roll on the Rusted Days.” In this coked-up road song, “the mountains look like the skulls of gods” as the band rolls on to “another town, another rusted day.” California never seemed less sunny, or more promising.
Critical bias: Brooklyn Bowl really does serve destination-worthy fried chicken.
Overheard: “In a certain light, the bass player looks just like Allen Woody.”
Random notebook dump: Brooklyn Bowl was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop as openers D. Charles Speer & the Helix took the stage. Of course it was league night, so…
Self Made Man
Phantom in the Valley
Can’t Satisfy Me Now
Dancers at the End of Time
Calling Lightning Pt. 2
I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
Roll on the Rusted Days
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 9, 2012