You have to understand, I wasn’t even 8 years old when Nirvana was building steam and Nevermind broke. I’ve experienced my entire musical life in the corporate rock vacuum that occurred after “grunge” died, where the idea of an entire scene of musicians building a library of releases and building steam seemed pointless or impossible. As the corporate labels largely failed to follow their early 1990s explosion by promoting disparate or whimsical trends, and the internet threw every band into each corner of the world, the actual idea of a collection of artists building steam while producing great music seemed nothing more than a myth from the past.
On Saturday, September 29, my wife and I traveled to Madison to catch Ty Segall Band and Thee Oh Sees at High Noon Saloon. The entire show was a success, as the young audience devoured each shred of crazed rock, and the artists played as though it were their last show on earth (actually, it was Thee Oh Sees’ penultimate show with Ty Segall on this tour). Throughout the show, I couldn’t stop thinking about how far these San Francisco bands traveled beyond their initial garage rock origins, and their live brilliance solidifies any claim that San Francisco’s bands own the current rock scene.
Madison’s own The Hussy and Trin Tran opened the evening by clearly establishing an anything-goes, left-field vibe. The Hussy played on the floor, hiding their severe fuzz blasts and unpredictable noise from much of the audience. I had no idea what was happening, but the band sounded raw and especially huge for a duo. It was hard to tell if their guitar was getting unplugged by the audience, or if they simply built their songs around mind-bending stops-and-starts; pummeling drum parts would propel thrash structures into a complete blitz of echo. Everything would stop, the guitar surrendering to endless mechanical repeats, the band then diving into their next song while riding those waves of noise. The wild audience and The Hussy’s well-paced sludge set the bar high.
Ty Segall has a new imprint, GOD?, in the works with Drag City, and its first LP is that of Trin Tran. Madison’s one-man band followed The Hussy with a strange sort of theater. Hooked up with what appeared to be a bass drum, guitar, and multiple key/synthetic devices, Trin Tran wavered between folk narratives and spooky, fragmented electronic shifts. Through an echoed microphone, Trin Tran would introduce his songs and speak like a troubadour, while his collection of electronic devices seemed to battle with him for attention. Switching between strummed guitar and percussive, bass-heavy keys, Trin Tran’s set felt like a spectacle. Watching him work felt as enjoyable as listening to his songs, and his feverish pace made one question whether the entire operation might fall of the rails; yet the songs never stopped and Trin Tran reached between genres to produce an individual vision.
Thee Oh Sees effectively followed Trin Tran’s left-field fragments and The Hussy’s anything-goes energy with a wicked set of noisy fundamentals. The quartet played as though they were staged against gangs of hostiles storming their stage, and their energy and acumen was their only hope to escape alive. There’s nothing better than watching a band play like they have something to prove, and when a band of Thee Oh Sees’ caliber decides to win over an audience, the results can be transcendent.
A lot was familiar about Thee Oh Sees’ set, as they burned through Carrion Crawler/The Dream mainstays, but their delivery was fresh and unstoppable. Their energy morphed their bizarre garage-psych gems into unclassifiable blasts of noise. While John Dwyer’s unruly shredding exuded intensity, the rhythm section of Brigid Dawson (keys on nearly every song), Petey Dammit, and Mike Shoun locked a fierce boundary for those 12-string leads. The band clearly moved beyond the structured and warped sounds of Help! and Warm Slime into extreme territories, but where their set was as experimental as krautrock, it was also as raw as Big Joe Turner. Pure American rhythm and blues exploded into ghoulish realms of the mind and the corners of acid culture.
Not unlike Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall’s Band tore into their leader’s catalog while moving the material into a completely different direction. Where Segall’s solo work feels like extremely catchy and ramshackle efforts, Ty Segall Band is a well-oiled machine that churns between mid-range sludge and surprising glam moves. Segall lead this attack with a wide-open Fender Mustang that covered every frequency of his strings, replacing any treble-happy recordings with a robust live sound. Each of the players in his band served clear, structured roles, which turned even Segall’s rowdiest songs into monolithic anthems.
Segall answered the energy of the youngsters moshing in front of the stage with frantic screams as his set progressed, and the band spat back dynamic rock as the crowd clamored. So many angles of rock shone through their chugging attack, as Ty Segall Band’s heavy sound recalled Big Brother and the Holding Company as much as Mudhoney or Mott the Hoople.
Flashing before my eyes, the entire night, I witnessed a crowd won over by hard-hitting rock. The real energy of the evening stemmed from fans that seemed to have their expectations blown away; if Thee Oh Sees’ otherworldly punk blew their minds, Ty Segall Band’s execution elevated their epiphanies with a surprising homage to rock. In a year where neither of these acts are under-praised, and indeed a year where these acts inch closer to “mainstream” awareness, the sheer joy of their audience deserves to be documented alongside their sounds.
From the beginning, it’s not necessarily true that Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall founded a San Francisco scene that was completely original or unseen. Like some of the greatest scenes in American history, these groups accomplished pop music’s holy grail: they used their energy and vision to concoct sounds that draw on the strongest elements of rock history while delivering those sounds with the abandon and attitude that belongs to the best performers. If one is compelled to argue that these acts aren’t doing anything new, one only needs to remember that even the bluesmen were drawing from their favorite records and performers a century ago. If originality seems fleeting and difficult to find, songcraft and energy can sweep in to produce great pop music.
The joy of the audience, the thrill of having expectations blown away by rock music, suggests that these bands have their hands on something extremely important and rare in our culture. While their release cycles continue and their discographies build, their energetic, dynamic deliveries will continue to solidify the praise for their recordings. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to praise things that are praiseworthy for their best attributes; rather, I hope that as these acts continue to build structured pop with ample noise and rowdy rhythms, they can continue to bring their blistering Americana to even more audiences.