Monday, July 20, 2009

MUSIC: A Less Powerful Jesus Lizard

In the spring of 1997, I saw what I consider to be the best rock show I've seen in my life—and that's thousands of and thousands of shows. Twelve years later, that accolade still stands.

It was The Jesus Lizard at the Metro in Chicago. The band had been touring for quite awhile in support of their stellar 1996 album Shot (Capitol Records). I'd seen the band the previous year at The Vic Theatre in Chicago (an amazing show in its own right), as well as a dozen other times over the years, every performance exactly that—a performance. But something happened at that Metro show that every regular (addicted?) concertgoer hopes for: synergy.

The Jesus Lizard, as a band and as individual players, the crowd, as mass participants and individual energy sources, and the venue—sound mix and volume, lighting, atmosphere—all these elements converged at the same time for the same purpose with peak concert experience results. Singer David Yow was in great form, egging on the crowd and seemingly the band, stage diving and being carried to the back of the venue, never missing a line or a growl. He was like an exposed ball of muscle and nerve, the sheer energy pouring into the venue like an adrenalin shot directly into the heart. The band was exceptionally tight—you could clearly hear the nanoseconds of silent space between notes and chord shifts. They sounded like a hurricane—overpowering, devastating, unrelenting. That may be what I remember most about the show: the force of the music, every note, pounding against my skeleton, stirring my marrow. As a music journalist covering the show, I tried my best to maintain some semblance of analytical distance. But I failed. Miserably. It was joyous.

I saw the newly reformed Jesus Lizard at Pitchfork last Friday (7/17). Been looking forward to the show since it was announced. All the elements seemed in place: the crowd of accolytes were obviously stoked, the venue was comfortable and well designed (Pitchfork really does a great job in creating a fan-friendly event), and it was apparent from the opening song that The Jesus Lizard had come to play. Their performance was first-rate: Yow kept the audience engaged, some of that trademark energy washing over at least some of the crowd nearest the stage, and Denison, Sims, and McNeilly were remarkably tight for a band that hadn't been touring constantly for a few months. As a fan, I enjoyed the hell out of the performance. But something was missing.

I couldn't feel the music.

It simply wasn't loud enough.

About five minutes into The Jesus Lizards' set, I realized the unfortunate limitation: at an outdoor venue, where the sound is quickly dispersed, I wasn't going to be able to feel the music unless I stood within feet of one of the speakers. And I wasn't interested in running the sweaty, shirtless human grease chute to attempt speaker proximity.

The good news is that The Jesus Lizard will be back in Chicago, at Metro, for a couple of shows at the end of November. Inside, where the sound and energy that is a Jesus Lizard show will be contained and, as always, a little dangerous.

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