Tonight’s opening bands encapsulated both extremes of the noise spectrum, starting with the local Mob Terror, who merge equal parts Land Speed Record–era Hüsker Du and Scum-era Napalm Death but with a technical prowess that is obvious despite the speed and more volume than a trio should have.
As fast as Mob Terror was, Queen Elephantine was just as deliberate. It’s a solid bet that Josh Yelle puts more effects pedals on his cello than anyone before him in the entire history of music. But he seems to actually use them, a mild surprise given that the instrument seems employed more as reverberating percussion that creates just as much of a foundation to the band’s sound as the two drummers. Their kits face each other like one of those old timey jazz drum competitions that you can find in grainy YouTube videos.
Such contrasts allow for dynamic drone, and if that seems at odds with itself, well, it is. Unlike most morose folks, the quintet (at this show there were five of them; the band claims to have ten or more members spread around the globe) slows down but still has far more going on than might be perceived. A respect for progressive rock and jazz is obvious even when the singer is moaning incomprehensibly and the tempo seems stuck in reverse. Some bands make the complex look easy, but Queen Elephantine takes it one step further by making it seems completely unforced.
And of course there’s nothing easy about Oxbow. All four individuals are accomplished and crazy: a jazz drummer who stays in the pocket, as jazz drummers are wont to do; a noise guitarist versed in skronk and circumstance; and a post-punk bassist who is the glue that seatbelts everyone in for the ride.
But frontman Eugene Robinson, a man unlike any you have met, steals the show. In many ways, Oxbow makes music for him to strip to: he started out wearing a jacket, white tuxedo shirt and a gentleman’s hat but soon most of his clothing was hanging from the drum kit, leaving Robinson a sweaty mass of tattoos and muscles clad only in dress slacks, an open vest and a Star of David around his neck.
Part Henry Rollins’ hot animal machine stalking the stage looking for prey, part Tom Waits’ haggard bluesman with a chip on his shoulder and stories to tell, Robinson is, to put it mildly, intimidating. He doesn’t tell jokes between songs but elicits nervous laughter all the same. He had a palpable disdain for those who would try to capture the show. “I am having sex, I don’t want cameras, but video is especially off-putting,” he said after wiping spit on one photographers lens who he thought was making a video.
Thin Black Duke, released earlier this year, brought Oxbow out of a decade-long hiatus, and the band performed about half of it, including the throbbing “A Gentleman’s Gentleman,” album opener “Cold & Well-Lit Place” which channels both Nick Cave and Mike Patton, and lilting, lingering set-closer “Ecce Homo.” The album will undoubtedly appear on many Best of 2017 lists, and live its songs were even more deserving of such accolades.
Of the older tracks played, standouts included “The Stabbing Hand” and a cathartic, chaotic “Burn,” a song which defines art rock in the hands of Oxbow, and a legitimately unplanned encore chosen after some debate by the singer, audience, and guitarist who seemed distressed that his rig could play only two settings: ”really loud and really clean.” The choice of “Sunday,” from 1995’s Let Me Be a Woman was like a psychotic break set to music, a perfect ending befitting Oxbow’s perfect comeback.