Boston, MA • October 5, 2008
I don’t go to shows as much as I used to. Part of this is because I no longer live in the heart of the “big city” where concert venues are a mere subway stop or a quick bus ride away. Part of it is because I’m old and lazy. Well, older and lazier, at any rate. But I digress.
When a band like Pinback rolls into town, it’s hard to find an excuse not to make the trip. And with the intriguing sBACH on the bill as an opening act, the deal is clearly sealed. This is how I find myself inside Boston’s Paradise Rock Club on a cool evening in early October.
The night has not started out well, and I’m a bit on the irritated side as I wait for things to get started. The memory card in my camera had crapped out and I’d been forced to buy one at the very last minute at a nearby drugstore for probably three to four times fair market value. And my name has somehow managed to not find its way on the guest list as promised. Ah well. Some coaxing and a few phone calls patches this up, but it still doesn’t change the fact that I’m in a bit of a foul mood by the time the first band takes the stage. Fortunately, both of the acts tonight are a lot of fun, and I’ll leave feeling much better than when I came in.
First up is Spencer Seim’s sBACH (pronounced “sbock”). I’m not sure if the name is an homage to the composer Bach, the aging Skid Row frontman, or the infamous (and also aging) Leonard Nimoy. Or all three. I suppose it doesn’t much matter. Seim is probably better known as the guitarist from Hella, but he’s also the drummer in a Nintendo music cover band called The Advantage. The word on the street is that Seim plays all the instruments on the debut release from sBACH, his latest side project-slash-experiment. Tonight, in touring mode, he’s playing drums, backed by three collaborators who all play both guitar and synth.
sBACH’s music seems to borrow from both Hella and The Advantage; it’s a noisy affair with droning 8-bit loops and beats and plenty of spazzy math rock drum flair. The performance as a whole is entirely instrumental and it’s heavier than I would have expected live, at times delving into the sort of murky prog-metal territory usually tread by bands like Isis.
Throughout the set Spencer’s kit is perched out in front, clearly the center of attention both musically as well as in the literal sense. Since they’re lacking a vocalist, a video camera appears to be taped to the mic stand, which is awkwardly trained on various audience members who are projected onto the screen behind the band for all to see. From time to time, Seim steps out from behind his kit to reposition the camera. Whether this footage is used to study the audience post-performance or simply make them feel uncomfortable we’ll never know.
At times sBACH really works well for me. Seim is clearly quite talented and on the cusp of doing something really interesting with this side project. There are moments when the diverse sounds just come together, particularly in the more ambient moments, and everything makes sense. But much of the time the sudden explosive drumming is just a little too over the top, too self-indulgent, too distracting. The contrast is just too great. Perhaps it would fare better on a different bill, but it’s difficult given that the majority of their audience has shown up tonight to watch the smoothly seamless pop perfection personified by the headlining band.
When Zach Smith, Rob Crow, and the rest of the current Pinback touring configuration finally take the stage, the Paradise fills with cheers and applause. This is clearly what the audience has been waiting for. The band immediately launches into familiar songs. I’d almost go as far as to say that their set list is a “best of” wishlist for a lot of audience members, many of whom radiate with glee and sing along to the choruses of some the best chilled-out melodic pop songs that will never find a mainstream radio audience.
Behind the band, the projector is now showing a variety of rough home-movie footage, intermixed with album artwork and hand-scrawled lyrics to songs. It adds a certain extra dramatic atmosphere to the performance, subtle most of the time and highlighted by footage shown during the more somber songs. At one point Rob announces that they’ll be playing a couple of fan-created music videos, which turn out to be pretty great.
Pinback is a band that knows its audience, that loves its fans. The songs that they play tonight seem to be sampled from each of their albums and distributed fairly well, slightly favoring newer material as you’d expect. An incomplete list of high points includes “Loro” from the self-titled full-length, “Penelope” and “Boo” from Blue Screen Life, “Microtonic Wave” from the Offcell EP, “Non-Photo Blue,” “Fortress,” “AFK,” and “Bloods on Fire” from Summer in Abaddon, and “Good to Sea,” “How We Breathe,” “Devil You Know,” and “Off By 50” from their latest, Autumn of the Seraphs.
Crow, the band’s official spokesperson between songs, tells us that the last song (“Off By 50”) is about the irrational fears that authority enforces on us through secrets and symbols (666). Look, I learned something tonight! He also does a fine job of keeping the audience engaged while the band deals with crippling technology failure at one point. The crowd is patient, and rewarded for their patience with an amazing version of “Boo” once the “bullshit” is finally working again. “Last man on earth bullshit,” says Rob, dismissing the perceived panic and contrasting it with the song’s message, as if to imply that he was somehow testing us.
If you haven’t seen Pinback live, and you’re a fan, I’d heartily recommend that you change that. They’re an amazing band both in and out of the studio and seeing Rob Crow and Zach Smith seamlessly blend not only their musical ambitions but also their overlapping, perfectly juxtaposed vocal bits in front of you, in real-time, is truly a spectacle. It’s one thing to hear a beautifully constructed studio album, but it’s another thing entirely to witness the reconstruction of that in a live setting.
Goaded back to the stage for an encore, the band churns out two more hidden gems from their catalog. This time it’s “Sender” and “June” (from the Some Voices EP). After that, a female audience member collapses in the audience and the band uses it as an excuse to close out the night. I leave feeling upbeat, and I think pretty much everyone else does too. Except maybe that girl.