Because of my writing gigs for Paste Magazine and allmusic.com, I get a lot of free CDs in the mail. Every week twelve or fifteen of those shiny plastic discs get unwrapped, along with breathless press releases informing me of the rock ‘n roll epiphany I am about to unleash when I press the Play button. If I actually experienced half the thrills and chills I was promised, my heart would have given out years ago. There’s only so much excitement and aural orgasmic delight one fifty year old body can withstand, you know. I don’t get around to listening to half the music I receive. It’s nothing personal. It’s because I have a life, and sometimes I need to do things like go to work and actually relate to real, flesh-and-blood human beings. Of the half I listen to, most albums get a cursory overview -- the first fifteen or thirty seconds of each song. I end up going back to some of them and playing them all the way through. And once in a great while an album shows up, out of the blue, from an unknown performer or band, and I listen, and my body involuntarily engages in what could loosely be construed as “dance,” and I can’t hit the Replay button fast enough.
So about a month ago one of those CDs showed up in the mailbox. It was called No Midnight, and it was by a San Francisco band called Birdmonster. No label contact information, no big-time promotion, no glossy photos; these guys apparently adhered to the DIY school of music making. So out of curiosity I played it, and not once did I sense the urge to move on quickly. The first song was good. The second song was better. The third song was a flat-out aural orgasm, with an impossibly infectious hook, a rubberband bass line that would do The Strokes proud, and an unhinged lead vocal that left the detached Julian Casablancas marinating in his ironic cool. This music was not cool. It was hot, white hot, and it was passionate and intense, full of the manic whisper-to-a-scream shtick that The Pixies and Nirvana perfected years ago, but tricked out with banjos and cellos and deft little touches that left all the influences behind and gave the band a sound all its own. It also happened to rock like crazy. There were thirteen songs on the album, and twelve of them sounded about as fresh and explosive as anything I’ve heard this year.
So they came to Columbus last night and played in a campus basement dive called Bernie’s Distillery, the kind of place where the pipes on the ceiling leak some sort of dubious liquid on the heads of the patrons, and the bathroom stalls are covered with graffiti. About 25 people showed up, of whom I knew about ten, because I had conducted my own little private Come See Birdmonster crusade. That was apparently about 22 more than had shown up the previous night in Pittsburgh. It’s never good when the band members outnumber the audience.
At any rate, they played most of the songs from that album, and a couple I didn’t recognize, but which I assume appear on the EP I bought from Zach the drummer/merch table guy. They didn’t have the banjo or cello, and they were sloppy on some of the songs that came as unexpected requests from the audience (What? You know that song? Cool!), but they more than made up for it in the wildman abandon with which they played, and in the pure, unbridled joy of four friends making music together. I have no idea what kind of relationships these guys have with one another. But they certainly sold me on the kind of community that can develop when four guys are locked in together, playing their asses off, and reveling in the wonders of creating a glorious din. I have been to mega rock festivals, and watched with 100,000 other people some iconic rock figure the size of an ant projected onto a Jumbotron screen. But I’m telling you, nothing beats the pure pleasure of standing in a campus dive, three feet from a stage, watching some great but unheralded band strut their stuff. It’s the best feeling in the world, and I got to experience it last night. It was worth dragging the family out from the burbs, two generations of Whitman’s experiencing some genuine rock ‘n roll bonding. That was fun. It was worth hanging out with Zach the drummer/merch table guy afterwards, and discovering a wide-eyed music fan who is having the time of his life, even when only three people show up. And it was worth the wear and tear on the fifty-year-old body, the go-to-bed-at-two-and-get-up-at-six horror of a ringing alarm clock and another day in corporate America, totally fried but totally exhilarated.
These guys don’t have a big PR department behind them. It’s all word-of-mouth advertising. So watch my virtual mouth moving and telling you to go see them if you get the chance. You won’t regret it.