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Howls From the Metro

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Dead Meadow vs. Zwan in a Chicago blowout.

Howls From the Metro

While Alternative Rock Hits are clearly not this publication’s bread-and-butter, there is certainly some pleasure to be found in the elegance of a simple, loud, catchy song. It is safe to assume that bands of this nature provided early thrills for music fans of all sorts, many of whom retain soft spots – even sincere adoration – for such appreciation. But there is usually greater pleasure to be found with music that nudges a genre closer to perfection, or that one explores sound in novel and exciting ways. Each of this type was recently showcased at Chicago’s Metro, the former provided by Zwan, and the latter by Dead Meadow.

Zwan, the new band fronted by Billy Corgan, certainly has a number of pop hits in their repertoire, but in this case Corgan’s choice of collaborators, Dave Pajo (Papa M/Slint/Tortoise/Palace) and Matt Sweeney (Chavez/Palace) in particular, is far more intriguing than any purely musical aspect of the band. In one (the second) of a recent series of five record-release shows, Zwan revealed themselves to a sold-out crowd with a predictably hit-laden, but imperfect record-release performance. The tunes were often catchy and giddy (a la Siamese Dream) and just as often self-indulgent and long-winded (a la the rest of the Pumpkins’ catalog). As for Pajo and Sweeney, while it’s clear that they both had Corgan’s ear during the songwriting/recording process, their musical input onstage was, sadly, minimal. Sweeney was not short on charisma or stage presence and seemed to fit the rock star bill quite comfortably (for historical precedent, please refer to Chavez’s “Unreal is Here” video). Pajo, on the other hand, spent much of the show shying away from the crowd and turning his guitar down. Both nibbled away at backup guitar lines and occasional scripted solos, but center-stage belonged, understandably but somewhat disappointingly, to Corgan. Time passed (about two hours) and the novelty slowly (but not entirely) wore off, but another question loomed: Could someone as impossibly lame as Corgan become hip by association? The band’s decision to allow each member to choose an opening act for each of the five shows helped to answer this, as Dead Meadow (Sweeney’s choice) all but stole the show on the second night of the series.

Recently signed to Matador, Washington DC’s Dead Meadow opened the show with a chugging guitar line that thundered along for nearly eight minutes as it was echoed, complemented, and nudged along by the equally free-minded rhythm section. Dead Meadow’s sludgidelica plays in a vein similar to some of Royal Trux’s more concise moments, focusing on grimey jams and deep melodies, but guitarist Jason Simon’s nasal howl of a voice as well as their metallic tendencies can sometimes bring the band’s overall sound closer to a Sabbath-inspired heaviness. Simon’s guitar playing led the way, shifting easily from intricate guitar lines to Echo-Plexed feedback loops, and sometimes even cutting loose with wailing hyper-speed guitar solos. His foot spent a good part of the set frantically twitching a wah pedal, allowing his guitar tones to suffocate, then escape. Each song was structured around a central guitar line, and although the movement and structure within each song could have used a bit more variety, the band’s ability to transpose their fairly open-ended improvisations onto broadly defined (but defined no less) verse-chorus-verse structure was quite impressive.

Dead Meadow’s set drew heavily from 2001’s Howls From the Hills (released on Joe Lally’s Tolotta Records), but expanded the songs from their fairly restrained recorded forms into fully-developed explorations. Their version of “Dusty Nothing,” which came near the end of the set, was a case in point. Simon’s lengthy and stellar guitar line was matched exactly by bassist Steve Kille, whose explosive and thick tones left more than enough room for Simon to properly take off. With a jazz-like alternation of focus, and occasional eye contact, the skinny and slightly unkempt trio succeeded where many of their genre tend to misstep (even top-tier psychsters like Bardo Pond and Acid Mothers Temple), by not allowing for such severe repetition of form and melody to ever grow dull. In spite of the improvisational nature of the band’s live form, every shift in focus seemed to be precisely calculated, and every variation, however slight, managed to shine.

If their most recent release, 2002’s Got Live if You Want it was a somewhat disappointing and unrepresentative showcase of Dead Meadow’s live abilities, it clearly had little to do with the musicians themselves. While Got Live, a “bootleg” culled from recordings made by superfan Anton Newcombe (of Brian Jonestown Massacre) mistakenly allowed their sludgey sound to congeal, the actual live show did just the opposite. This was of particular importance for the bassist Carr, whose tendency to strum or to elaborately ape Simon’s guitar lines could have easily been lost in the tonal tumble of distortion and cymbal crashes. Instead he projected crisp clarity without the expense of losing the rumbling low-end. Although nothing could have fully drawn the audience’s attention away from their impatience to see Billy Corgan and Zwan, the relatively unknown Dead Meadow, who were relegated to the front three feet of the Metro’s massive stage, did as well as they could have hoped to do. And while Simon’s departing comment of “Stick around, Zwan’s up next,” was probably made with tongue-in-cheek, it rang truer than was intended.

By Sam Hunt

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