The Stars of the Lid show at San Francisco’s Independent on April 15 was an early one. After all, Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie judge their music’s effectiveness by its soporific qualities. They must know the potential hazard in ending a show any closer to midnight than they did.
The show began just before 9 p.m. with a brief set from San Franciscan (and recent Ryuichi Sakamoto collaborator) Christopher Willits, and the last notes of the headliners’ encore lasped into silence around a quarter after eleven. It made the event remarkably focused — and, more important, well worth the schlep: I have no great love for the Independent, a venue remarkable only for being remote from both decent parking and public transit and for catering primarily to the Pitchfork 8.0 Club. Shows there tend to feel like an obligatory victory lap following Internet-critical consensus.
The tables clustered near the stage were filled well before Willits began his set. After watching his computer music how-to series on XLR8R TV, I felt that his openness about technique would unfairly predispose me toward liking his music. But as far as processed-guitar wranglers go, Willits is just doing solid work: His music is choppy enough to feel slightly edgy, but his style is so consistently pretty that it feels more appropriate as an audio environment than something requiring undivided attention.
Stars of the Lid materialized onstage soon after with an all-female string trio. Wiltzie was wearing a yellow hoodie (hood up, like in the publicity photo!) and McBride looked like an edgy French lit professor, a (price?) tag dangling from the headstock of his guitar, like he’d just bought it and wanted to keep it looking fresh. The quintet used the same frequencies as Willits did (which could have been as faithfully rendered on any gallery/performance space’s PA, a fact that was somehow both endearing and frustrating).
While Willits’s guitar playing remains gestural, the raw sound of the two guitar players was so thoroughly futzed with through their extensive effects rigs as to come out sounding like pure textural mulch or, on rare occasion, a raging array thunderous mids and lows. Despite being one of my favorite artists in any medium, I’d always taken the group’s purported Arvo Pärt fixation less than seriously. Live, his music seemed like the only valid comparison: The strings’ monumental triads had a geometrical solidity, equally mystical and functional. Closing with the And Their Refinement of the Decline’s epic “December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface,” the quintet overwhelmed not with volume or detail (earplugs were mostly useful as a way of filtering out ambient conversation), but with overtone-rich, bell-like resonance.
Afterward, even the silence sounded troubled.