Rolling and Tumbling

Lié, at Club Congress. Tucson, 4 June.

Usually, if I walk in on a concert in progress, it takes me a while to pay full attention. I’ll go buy a drink, look for people I know, size up the crowd. This past Monday was different. Although I’d never heard of the band Lié before that moment, I knew I’d never stop wanting to hear them. The experience was that powerful.

Something similar had happened to me on a few occasions, but most were in the distant past. These days, if I am contemplating going to a show, I do just enough research on the internet to decide whether it seems worth it. Because I already knew enough about the other two acts on the bill, Egrets on Ergot and Algiers, to justify a rare night out, I didn’t feel the need to do more than peruse the photo of the three women who comprise Lié on Club Congress’s Facebook post about the event.

“Oh,” I thought to myself, “they’re going to be another one of those neo-Riot Grrrl bands.” Honestly, that alone would have been enough to push me out the door. There are few things I love better than getting revved up to Bikini Kill, Team Dresch, or Sleater-Kinney – all artists who, while not reducible to the movement, embody its aesthetics – and was in the mood to let politicized fury wash over me.

But I wasn’t prepared for Lié’s power. Part of the reason I like to have a drink before a show now is that it’s hard for me to relax enough to enjoy music independently of my mind’s relentless drive to classify it. A Jack and Coke helps me ease into the experience, like taking off my shoes and edging towards the sea foam on the shore. This time, however, such assistance would have been entirely superfluous.

Two minutes into the first song, I’d already been knocked off my feet and been shoved headfirst into the sand. I was dizzy with a sense of possibility and delighted that it had nothing to do with me. Sidestepping my way through the crowd, which seemed transfixed by the intensity of the music, I got as close to the band’s amplifiers as I dared. I didn’t have earplugs. And I didn’t want them.

Although it was hard to catch many of the words, I understood enough to be anxious about how I was positioning myself. I knew I didn’t want to be like the older guy in the front row who was enthusiastically bobbing up and down in a way that required both members of the band and members of the audience to acknowledge his presence. This wasn’t the sort of performance for which a large, white male needed to demonstrate his approval. He was irrelevant and so was I. It was wonderful.

The songs weren’t directed at me. I was just a stone tumbling in their wake. I recalled my first year at university when I suddenly found myself in classes too large for the professor even to try learning students’ names. Many people find that kind of anonymity disturbing. To me, though, it felt like liberation. Lié was making me feel that way, only with the conscious realization that this alienation was a necessary step on the passage to freedom.

Trying hard not to encroach on anyone’s personal space or obstruct the sightlines of those behind me, I claimed a spot on the floor where I could give my body to the music without a bad conscience. There I stood, tensing and releasing the muscles in my arms and legs, like someone playing a tree in a modern dance performance: rooted, yet swaying.

I’ve rarely been able to move to music in public without feeling self-conscious. Lié’s set managed to transform that heightened awareness into something altogether different, the realization that I don’t need more room to express myself and, what is more, don’t deserve it, either. I can do everything I feel the need to do right here, like a cat sitting on a postage stamp. I tense my muscles and I release them, almost as if I’m doing some strange new exercise routine.

Later on, I’ll learn that the members of this Vancouver trio are guitarist Ashlee Luk, bassist Brittany West, and drummer Katie J. Their new label Mint Records describes their forthcoming third album Hounds as, “cold, hostile, and most of all dark”, suggesting that their sound takes the Cold or Dark Wave subgenre into a more explicitly punk direction. The band’s very limited press suggests that they are uncompromisingly fierce, a characterization with which I agree wholeheartedly. They have also put out somewhat gothier music under the name Masters.

I remember that I was similarly won over by another band from Vancouver many years ago. Then, it was The Organ, opening for The New Pornographers, whom I’d recently had the pleasure of interviewing. The Organ was exploring a streamlined neo-goth vibe, revisiting sounds from the early 1980s a couple years before the practice went mainstream. It was Cold or Dark Wave, reallym, before those terms became so firmly established. Lié is also interested in revisiting the history of post-punk, but seemingly turns to more out-there artists for inspiration, like the No Wave scene that produced James Chance or the Olympia sound of the early 1990s at its most edgy, with the poppier moments folded in on themselves to the point of becoming almost indiscernible layers of noise.

But these ruminations won’t come until after the concert, when I’m trying to process the experience. During Lié’s performance, I’m too blown away to follow through on the historicist imperative that usually shapes my response to a show. This music is too good to waste time on such a diversion. Trying to classify their music, to make sense of how to periodize it, would be like going to wait in line for a drink instead of letting the music perform its magic work. I’m transfixed and transformed, tensing and releasing.

This concert will be a workout, I realize. Only the sweat that starts to bead on my brow isn’t the sort that forms when I clamber up cactus-bordered trails or reduce the tree branches I’ve just pruned to a manageable size. What’s pouring out of me are all the words that normally take shape in my head as I listen and observe. They are evaporating in the dry June heat, leaving me to make do with feelings that resist the imposition of meaning.

After the set is over, I rush over to the merch table to see whether I can purchase anything from the band. There isn’t much. The wares of Algiers and Egrets on Ergot take up most of the table. I wait until the guitarist from Lié walks over. I tell her that the show was tremendous. “Sometimes, you just walk in and everything is perfect.” She smiles and thanks me.

Later, I see the other two members of the band sitting on a sofa in the lobby talking and laughing. There’s nobody around them. Like their music, they are turned in on themselves. When the headliner Algiers starts up a little later, they walk back inside and make their way towards the stage, stopping right in front of where I’m standing. They watch the band for a while. It’s an impressive performance, though one that maybe tries too hard to seem important. They seem to appreciate it, but are too tired from their own set to pay full attention. Like the lead singer from Algiers did during their performance, they drift off after a couple songs.

Everyone seems to be into Algiers. And so am I, to a degree. Maybe I just used up all my energy on Lié. When I go back to the merch table after their set, I have to wait in a sizable line for a chance to buy their latest CD. No one but me had been buying Lié’s forthcoming LP on vinyl or their earlier EP re-released on cassette, which is ironic, given the fact that I don’t have a functional phonograph or cassette player right now. Their audience had been respectful, yet detached, probably saving themselves for Algiers.

I’m glad I didn’t. I hadn’t come for Algiers, really. I had come because I had the rare opportunity to go to a concert without worrying too much about what might go wrong back home. Even so, I still ended up spending half of Algiers’ set and almost all of Egrets on Ergot’s sitting in my car outside the venue, trying to help my daughter resolve a technological problem over the phone.

She also called during Lié. I didn’t hear that call, though. I also didn’t check my phone to see whether I’d missed one. The band’s music had briefly made me feel too small to be carrying the burdens of family around with me, too insignificant to need to formulate an opinion of them as I was listening. It may seem like a strange liberation, being reduced to one’s minimal self. But I found it exhilarating.

Two days later, I decided that I could spare the time to drive the 400-plus miles to see the Pacific Ocean in Encinitas, one of my family’s vacation spots. I arrived in Greater San Diego during rush hour, wondering why I’d embarked on such a wasteful and quixotic undertaking as my rental car inched along through traffic. As soon as I descended the precarious stairs at Swami’s, though, these thoughts dissipated like beads of sweat.

I watched the surfers. I listened to the sea. And, even though I made sure to keep my feet dry for the drive back, I felt myself start to tumble in the breakers. No one paid attention to me. I rooted myself and swayed. Maybe I’d listen to the Lié tracks I’d downloaded from Bandcamp on the return trip and start to think in earnest about what it means to recycle a musical subgenre so efficiently that none of its original power is lost. For now, though, I was content to be a rolling stone but far removed from the masculinist bravado of the Rolling Stones: insignificant, extraneous, free.

Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.