The moment I walked into the main hall of Buster’s Billiards and Backroom, which would serve as the central concert location for most of the weekend, I knew that Lexington’s second-annual Boomslang festival was going to be something special. The ceiling space of the large concert hall was filled with large colorful paper globes lovingly strung from the rafters. Upstairs, local eateries Gumbo Ya Ya’s and Puchini’s Smiling Teeth had provided a tasty spread of gumbo and pizza for hungry artists and VIP’s. Throughout the venue were tables stacked with programs, free magazines, and homemade comics. It was clear from Boomslang’s operation that the festival was presented not just as a celebration of WRFL, the University of Kentucky’s student-run radio station which coordinated the festival for the second year in a row, but of the arts and small business culture of Lexington as a whole.
I arrived on Friday evening in time to catch the start of the night’s lineup of mostly heavy psychedelic acts. As I made my way through the crowd, Sonic Boom, a solo project of Spaceman 3’s Pete Kember backed up by Wooden Shjips, was launching through a loud piece built on a foundation of thumping, repeating bass. This repetitious structure was enlivened by synths, guitars, pounding drums, and the scrambled samples and wailing vocals of Kember.
As the final notes of Sonic Boom’s set faded out, Zak Riles struck the first notes of his set over at the small performance space in the front room of the club. This was the rhythm that Boomslang (mostly successfully) attempted throughout most of the festival’s activity at Buster’s: coordinating sets to start immediately after each other on a rotating schedule between the main stage, the front room stage, and in the parking lot to the side of the club so that music continuously flowed. Riles did an admirable job of entertaining concert-goers as they slowly ambled out of the main hall and approached the bar to open their tabs for the night. His solo act consisted of electric guitar routed through a complex layout of effect pedals to create hypnotic and ever-expanding loops of guitar phrases and noises. It was like getting to listen to the bedroom experiments of a guitarist who really knows what he’s doing.
I wandered out into the Buster’s parking lot, where the festival was presenting a showing of the cult-favorite documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot. The film was projected on a large screen erected on the asphalt. After a few minutes of watching close-up shots of drunk ‘80’s metalheads drunkenly proclaiming their love of Judas Priest, I headed back inside.
In the main room, Wooden Shjips were taking the stage for their own set. This collection of songs was more focused on heavy psychedelic riff-rock and guitar solos rather than loops or samples. Illuminated by a series of flickering and gyrating video projects, the band ripped through their confidently powerful heavy-psych set with an energy that was equal parts decadent ‘70’s rock swagger, kinetic proto-punk energy, and mind-melting psychedelic aesthetic. Afterwards, the freak-rock n’ roll cacophony of Michigan freak-rock collective His Name is Alive burst from the front room of the club. The group seemed to be going for an angular, post-punk interpretation of rock music which sometimes veered into needlessly abrasive and sloppy territory. They did better towards the end of their set, when they slowed their pace and attacked bluesy, gospel-esque numbers with their own brand of discordant intensity.
Back in the main room, Lexington performance art project Pezhed took their stage to an eruption of piercing bleeps and bloops. The act was composed of two groups: those inside a myriad of wacky and absurd homemade costumes of cardboard boxes, kabuki masks, Styrofoam balls, and aluminum foil (Players); and those crouched at the front of the stage, dressed all in black, operating a series of electronic noisemakers (Operators). The onstage performance was based on a loose narrative of creature battles, a grim reaper figure, a demented variety show, and a knockout gas attack. The whole series was imaginative, confusing, funny, and wholly unique. When I first heard of Pezhed, I was told that it was ostensibly intended as a children’s act. Seeing it for a second time in as many years, I was glad they were now performing in a bar to which no child would be allowed entry: seeing a gigantic robot attacking a weird alien monster with rubber hoses in place of his face and hands would surely trigger some gnarly childhood nightmares.
After much anticipation, indie/psych jam band Akron/Family finally took the stage to close out the night. The group, along with the likes of Animal Collective, has inhabited the experimental hippie-vibe side of psychedelica for a few years now. They started their set with relatively concise songs devoted to love and friendship built on flowering beds of shimmering guitar and the occasional pleasant loop. As the set progressed, they began dipping their toes into the realm of droning feedback and noise machines, at times fully immersing themselves in squalling dissonance.
The music became more and more abstracted as the set stretched on. In keeping with what may be their jamming influence, the Grateful Dead, Akron/Family’s set expanded out with generous offerings of sampled ambience and noisy punctuations. Thankfully, the long set never felt self-indulgent. By the time Akron/Family geared up into its raga-influenced “Ed Is a Portal,” from 2007’s Love is Simple, audience members were joyfully dancing, singing along, and juggling neon glowing balls. For a few minutes, Boomslang had turned into Bonnarroo.
Check back for recaps of Saturday and Sunday’s events at Each Note Secure in the coming days.
-John Crowell @terriblesounds