January 25, 2014
The Bell House
Brooklyn, NY – Jan 11, 2014
by Jasen Ribadenera
“My friend’s family had an old boat out in their back yard all covered up to protect it while it wasn’t in the ocean or the lake or wherever. Us being teenagers getting into teenage things, we would climb up in that boat and hang out and stuff. Experiment. Hang out and experiment with teenage things. We’d hide in there away from the world being teenagers doing teenage things.” That’s what came out of Lee Ranaldo’s mouth before going into “Xtina As I Knew Her” from his 2012 solo album Between The Times And The Tides and it sounded like a culmination of sorts for Ranaldo, who spent the majority of his life in a band with the word Youth in the title. Lee’s nostalgic tangent had sorta touched me and as the song started to open and expand I started to feel more alive. Not in a teenage way. No, quite the opposite. I was now a blatant adult experimenting with adult things. I was with my personal trainer Valery and it was Saturday night. I was getting into adult things.
I had only found out about the show on the ride down to NYC from Western MA only 4 hours before doors. I called Vals and we started the wheels in motion. I told her how excited I was about this show particularly because Steve Gunn was opening and I had recently discovered his amazing new album Time Off on Spotify while visiting my podiatrist’s office for a heel callous shaving. She agreed to accompany me to the show on two conditions: 1) I sit instead of stand and 2) No dancing. I thought for a good full moon minute and ultimately agreed to the terms and said that I would be there by 5. “Wear yr heartbreaker jeans” I threw in quick before hanging up. The phone rang back almost instantly but I didn’t pick up the call. The number was blocked but I knew the score and anyways, there was no time to talk. I had to prepare.
By the time we finally arrived at The Bell House it was half filled with what looked like professors and their students so we walked to the food corner and split an order of vegetable dumplings and a memorable pulled pork sandwich from Urban Rustic. When I felt the vibe that tells you that someone is about to start playing music I grabbed Val’s hand and we casually strolled up to the front where Señor Gunn was about to take up residence. “I thought you promised that you were going to sit down because of yr bunions,” said Vals in a concerned tone. “I was,” I stammered. “I was, but have you seen the condition of the floors!?” She simply smiled the question off and started clapping as Steve picked up an acoustic guitar and went into “Water Wheel.” Once the sound was properly leveled Gunn and his band settled in on the main riff and the song branched out. It’s an amazing tune. With drummer John Truscinski and bassist Justin Tripp behind him, Gunn creates sounds that demands yr full attention. His music goes from quiet to driving to lush and delicate, sometimes within the constraints of one song. If you blink you might miss it. If you don’t know his stuff beforehand it’s kind of tough to fully appreciate it at a gig like this where 40% of the crowd is conversing. After cultivating the intricate country vibe of “Lurker” he picked up a Telecaster, plugged in, and went into “Street Keeper.” It seemed as if the audience finally shut up but when I looked around I saw that he’d just drowned ’em out. Whatever works. I really enjoyed the balance of his set. By waiting until the last three songs to plug in and play with a tad more aggression he kept it fresh and went out with style. “Old Strange” put a few of us out there in a trance state while the band locked in for a good long while until leaving Steve all alone, just him and that trippy middle-eastern sun burnt guitar line. He quietly left the stage having won over most of the audience. I see only good things for Steve Gunn from here on out. So good.
Straight to the point now because I seem to be indulging in over-description again; my cross to bear. It can’t be helped though – I’ll let my editor deal with it. Right now I’m remembering us standing in the same exact spot as we were for S.G. when Lee Ranaldo comes out with guitarist Alan Licht, bassist Tim Luntzel, and drummer Steve Shelley and they tear into a song I don’t remember. I wasn’t paying attention to things like set lists at this time because I was finally seeing Lee after 2 failed attempts. See, I’m a huge SY fan from my formative years on put the 4 members on my own version of a pedestal. Picture a big unbalanced throne propped up straight with 7″ records under one of the legs and torn leopard skin vinyl cushioning. Yeah, that’s a goddamn pedestal! I’ve been more or less into most of the solo stuff that’s been put out by the members post-Youth except for Lee’s. I want to like it, I really do, and when I hear the songs live before the album comes out I’m usually giddy with expectation only to be underwhelmed when I hear the mix finally coming out of my cheap speakers. Both of Lee’s solo offerings have been unfortunately spot-on middle of the road when it comes to dropping the needle in yr apartment but really powerful and weirdly melodic live from stage so I need to see him any time he plays or I may start to lose faith. So, let me just say this. There’s nothing like standing 10 feet away from Lee and Steve Shelley when they get lost in the sauce of a sonic freak-out. It’s an incredibly damaging experience to witness what 25 years of improvising together produces when these two go at it. Just plain beautiful on all fronts. I was blown away with how fluid the band sounds on a tune like “Ambulancer” when Lee hits the first note of the lead and Alan Licht then proceeds to go blind. Like I said before, on record the song “Off The Wall” sounds feeble and polished although you can tell it’s a great song at it’s root. It just takes the dirtying over-drive and vocal burying distortion of the live show to really get to you as a great song should. I wish they had just released live recordings. “Lecce, Leaving”, come to think of it, was the first song they played and it came on like a Husker Du number that night at The Bell House instead of sounding like an experimental Wilco tribute band as it does on record. Oh well, you get the point?
Lee Ranaldo & The Dust were in true form this night and were clearly enjoying every minute of it. About six inches to our right was a couple who would come to encapsulate the experience for Vals and I. Him, wearing a sweat-soaked lime green polo shirt and she, a sticky sun dress with and penchant for holding an iPhone in the air, seemingly taking the same photo over and over again until her arm finally fell out of its socket and flopped around in the crowd like a flouder. At every opportune moment she was liable to yell compliments such as “You look fucking great!” and “I love ya” hurdling towards Lee with a marksman’s accuracy. When she wasn’t holding her phone up like the Olympic torch, her man was intent on thrashing about like an injured elephant seal. His only saving grace was a quick running of the fingers through his wet red hair when he evidently felt unkempt. I get it. At one point I mistakenly reasoned that his actions were a cry for help and like the ancient gods, alls he required was a sacrifice to quell his erratic flailings. Much like tossing a virgin into a volcano in hopes that it won’t erupt, I began to nudge Vals in his direction. Selfishly she pushed back at me and with fear in her eyes yelled “Stop! Jason! Noooo, what are you doing!?” I thought it through and eventually let up when I saw Lee subtly shake his head no. Fine, fine.
Oh well. You get the point and that point is that it’s always worth it to see Lee, or any member of SY, perform these days. Their albums may be a different story but you can’t have yr cake if you know what I’m saying. Ranaldo and company ended the night with a cover of “Everybody’s Been Burned” by The Byrds and “Blackt Out”, the last song on their new one Last Night On Earth. As we left hand in hand Vals turned to me and asked why I had attempted to “offer her up.” I thought about it for another full moon minute before simply replying, “Because I love you.” We both laughed like jackals at this answer and faded into the filthy obscurity which is Gowanus, Brooklyn. Good times forever and ever amen.
photos by Valery Kallen
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