Concert review: Trail of Dead still has the power but not the finesse
Five quick thoughts about Saturday's ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead show at Ace of Cups:
(1) I would be remiss not to mention The Red Paintings, an Australian performance art crew whose opening set was almost certainly the strangest thing I've seen on stage in Columbus. Supposedly they usually have a full band, but according to singer Trash McSweeney (guffaw), the rhythm section is sitting out this tour due to chlamydia. The remaining ingredients included McSweeney (wearing a resplendent flowing skirt, a Russian winter hat and a jacket with a Yoda stuffed animal dangling off his back) on acoustic guitar and Alix Kol (on some skunk-streaked Cruella de Vil-goes-Xena Warrior Princess tip) on violin, plus a guy in an alien costume painting on a white canvas throughout the show, plus another guy in a robot mask covered in black body paint whose body was offered up as a canvas for the public. I suppose you need that kind of spectacle when your music sounds like Gavin Rossdale fronting the folk-punk band Ghost Mice. I can't imagine ever wanting to listen to this band's recordings or even paying to see them headline, but wow, what a gloriously pretentious spectacle.
(2) I would be equally remiss not to mention UME, the Austin power trio who also opened. This band's performance was diametrically opposite to The Red Paintings' set: All thrilling music, little-to-no pageantry. That's not to say singer/guitarist Lauren Langner Larson dispensed with the theatrics; she was a whirlwind of revitalized rock cliches, all whipping hair and spread-legged six-string chaos-wrangling. She is a beast, as are bassist Eric Larson (Lauren's husband) and drummer Rachel Fuhrer (either a tastelessly chosen stage name or an unfortunate surname). Their music was humongous and direct - powerhouse rock. Think of them as The Joy Formidable, Jr.
(3) Whereas UME is on the rise, Trail of Dead has long been gliding steadily down from the limelight. In my preview of Saturday's show, I recalled the group's pair of incendiary appearances at the Newport in 2002, back when the flawed-yet-masterfulSource Tags and Codeswas benefitting from a press orgy headlined by a surprise 10.0 Pitchfork review. It's 2013 now, and they haven't been playing rooms the size of the Newport for quite some time. That's a bummer because sounds as grandiose as this band's noise walls and emo anthems benefit from an equally grandiose setting. Plus it's a little sad to see bands you love fall from glory. I guess headlining a half-empty Ace of Cups is their version of Huey Lewis at Wisconsin Dells.
(4) The noise walls held up much better than the emo anthems. When they led off withSource Tagsopener "It Was There That I Saw You," I was initially ecstatic, but it was a bit gruesome watching them lurch through it, the remaining original members noticeably paunchier, Conrad Keely straining for the high notes. They came across like an old rickety version of a "Pacific Rim" robot that might tip over at any moment. But when they launched into something from last year'sLost Songsor any of the interchangable Sonic Youth squalls of old, it was magnificent. They couldn't quite match the euphoric madness of "A Perfect Teenhood" back at those Newport shows, but they came close. This is all to say that althoughSource Tags and Codesremains their best album by far, they might not be able to pull off that sound anymore and should probably stick to noise-punk bashups.
(5) Gotta give it up for Jason Reece still doing the drums/guitar switcheroo after all these years and still bringing the same level of bombastic energy to his vocal features. The only difference it's more of a bombastic-dad effect, which may be even more delightful than the wild man persona of his youth. The guy's contagious enthusiasm throughout was what kept this from becoming a bummer nostalgia night and suggests that Trail of Dead would still keep plugging away no matter how small the room.