Grails, James Blackshaw
and Animal Hospital @ Great Scott (Boston), Tuesday, April 26, 2011.
Some may hold the view that the human voice is the most versatile of all instruments, but if you'd ply that sub-population with a front to back airing of Grails' discography, chances are good that their bedrock opinions would be shaken at least a bit off of its mooring. Without vocals, this quartet (expanded now to a burgeoning six for the live setting) paints with a 32 bit color palette, weaving in the traditional bass/guitar/drums/keyboards elements and wrapping them around a healthy handful of musical styles to create one of the more colorful tapestries in today's music. At the helm of the ship is Emil Amos and Alex Hall, with Amos equally at home with a guitar slung across his chest or by playing the absolute living hell of out a basic four piece drum kit. Hall lays down the foundations of the riff, using either a traditional or baritone electric guitar to unleash the Eastern-tinged melodic lines, followed by crashing chords. Meanwhile, one can't forget the third leg of the guitar triangle, Zak Riles, who blended swaths of acoustic guitar texture against the wiry lines of Hall and Amos, while William Slater anchors the hypnotic bass lines and mans the sampler rig. It was also Slater who was responsible for the most diligently stylized set lists I've ever seen, as he patiently used a sharpie to inscribe several in different written styles, using the pages of a vintage Playboy magazine.
Most bands touring on a new record would commit the lion's share of the set list to material from it, and this would the rare instance where a surfeit of new material was a slight drawback. Deep Politics
is perhaps the best thing Grails
has done to date, a record that Amos has admitted may have put them in a difficult spot to move even further beyond (an interview with him, discussing this and other topics, will be coming soon). After the opening 1-2 slam of "Almost Grew My Hair" and "All The Colors Of The Dark" (both strangely evocative of Animals
-era Pink Floyd), they put that record to rest and spent the rest of the hour or so concentrating on material from the 2007-2008 sweet spot of Burning Off Impurities
, Take Refuge In Clean Living
and Doomsdayer's Holiday
After putting more Gilmour into the mix via the plaintive, sweeping guitar cries of "Acid Rain," Amos was back behind the kit (trading off with Jesse Bates who also played lap slide guitar) and blasting out drum rolls and cymbal crashes tighter than a lynch mob's noose, especially during "Origin-ing." With the addition of lap guitar and keyboards (Jay Clarke) in the live setting, Grails
was able to trample freely over any and all territory they've previously mapped out, and then some. Damned if the entire room wasn't electrified during the closer "Silk Rd," as the scirocco-like blasts of dueling guitar lines took flight and wound around each other, feverishly racing to keep up with the torrid pace of Amos' drumming. This is a band who knows exactly what they want to do, and exactly how to do it, in all aspects of their craft. Deep Politics
will certainly land on many best of 2011 lists come winter, and it's a great place to start if you know nothing about this band.
James Blackshaw, currently sporting a hair style that's more than a passing semblance of Ozzy circa Vol 4, has been tagging along on all of the US dates, and as a fellow recording artist for Important Records (and label honcho Jon Brion was in attendance), it made for a pretty natural and highly complementary matching. Instead of a highly intricate mix of instruments like Grails, Blackshaw is just on his own, doing his damnedest to make 12 strings sound like 72. His playing style is obviously rooted in the Fahey open tuning school, but he doesn't skirt anywhere near the blues traditions, and instead lays down an elegant, solemn, almost sacrosanct sound that's spellbinding and fully engaging. The harmonic drones from the lower strings circle around as he plays melodies on the upper strings. Beautiful in all ways. Another solo performer (Kevin Micka, under his project Animal Hospital) was just finishing up his looped guitar, samples and vocal melange as I got there.