(image from a previous show, credit)
The Guitars ended up headlining their show at the Southgate House on Saturday night, but not exactly by design. The band was originally slated to open up the much-hyped Black Keys side project Drummer and ended up headlining the show as after Drummer cancelled. Although the Southgate Houseâ€™s ballroom was by no means packed, all those in attendance knew exactly what they were in for: a night of celebrating and jamming to home-grown Cincinnati rock nâ€™ roll.
The night started out with local spazz-punk collective Weakness, who immediately bucked the trend of what I perceived would be a pretty solid vintage-y 70â€™s rock nâ€™ roll bill. The four unassuming members of Weakness took the stage quietly and stared a bit bemused into a small crowd slowly trickling in to the large ballroom before suddenly bursting into a series of quick and brutal angular punk explosions, none more than a couple minutes long and most consisting of quick changes from driving hardcore to start-stop post-punk to occasional dips into atonality. Beneath the clanging keyboard and pummeling drums was a noticeable rock nâ€™ roll sensibility, suggesting a sound like early Bad Brains, if they had started out as a garage rock outfit instead of a jazz group, or a Les Savy Fav who are were more interested in starting a riot than a dance party.
But people did dance, along with the lead singer, who shook and jostled around the stage for most of the set. The group played off each other and burst outwards like they were in the center of an overcrowded basement punk show. Although they lost the beat or devolved into noisy squalls a few times during their short set, it was exciting to hear a young band bursting with a cacophony of ideas rather than repeating a few monotonous ones.
I had been meaning to check out the Harlequins, who played next, for more than a year now. Iâ€™ve been reading ever-increasing positive reviews and accolades for the group and for whatever reason Iâ€™ve just never got around to checking them out until very recently. I listened to their latest release, Baron Von Headless, a few days before the Saturday nightâ€™s show and, based on the dense, lush sound of some of their tunes, was surprised to see that the live setup only consisted of three members. Turns out that lead singer Michael Olivia doesnâ€™t just use his voice to yelp out a few words, he croons through a reverb-soaked microphone, turning his voice into another indispensible element of the songs.
The guitar licks were catchy and punchy and each song was distinctive and grabbing; the band obviously has a knack for molding their fuzzy goodness into memorable tunes. Their psychedelic sound has been compared with the bong water-filtered music of 70â€™s garage rock, and the Harlequins took an accordingly laid-back attitude while playing for the crowd. Even a busted kick drum pedal midway through the second song wasnâ€™t enough to derail their positive vibes; they all just grinned, shrugged, and kept pounding out riffs and blasting positive vibes into the steadily growing audience until a member of one of the other bands passed up a generously loaned replacement.
20th Century Tokyo Princess started up next, and launched into a stream of steady-thumping bluesy rock. The drummer played without any cymbals, the bass player thumped persistent eighth note down strokes, and the guitarist ripped through song after song of yelping garage rock, sometimes stomping on a fat wah pedal to turn his guitarâ€™s overdriven strumming into a fuzz squall. Between singing baritone verses and pounding chords, guitarist Chris Jones tossed off a few oddball comments with 50â€™s rocker bravado (â€œWhat is it about the water here that makes the people sooooo sweet?!â€). The songs stuck pretty close to their guitar rock template, and Jonesâ€™s guitar playing and Jon Spencer-esque deep vibrato made me half expect him to shout out â€œBlues Explosion!â€ between song breaks, but the trioâ€™s jangling rock definitely kept the crowd dancing and excited.
Finally, Guitars took the stage with their impressive array of vintage pawn shop looking guitars and a gigantic, specially rigged electric organ. This dedication to original instrumentation paid off with a set that mixed fuzzy guitars, galloping drums, and shimmering keys into a mix of songs that sounded part Troggs-style rock nâ€™ roll, part British Invasion, and part 70â€™s TV action show theme song.
At the end of their set, the band seemed unsure of whether or not to do an encore; they hadnâ€™t planned on closing up this night. But the crowd relentlessly cheered them on until they headed back to the stage. This time, the band members switched instruments among themselves and launched into a few Black Sabbath-esque heavy riff songs, ending the show with guitar-squealing crescendo and a few beers lobbed good naturedly (Iâ€™m guessing) from the crowd towards the stage.
Although these bands were supporting a bill which had suddenly lost its national act headliner, they took the opportunity to turn Saturday night from a normal Southgate House showcase into a collaborative event. Groups complemented each otherâ€™s music onstage, they swapped and shared amplifiers from set to set, and, when done playing, band members cleared off their own gear and jumped down into the crowd, excited to see the next band.
The crowd was modest, but it was made up of real fans of the music and friends of the bands. A whole crowd of people danced on the floor of the ballroom like Iâ€™ve rarely seen during more crowded shows. Although Guitars and company didnâ€™t pack the place out, they were able to fill the Southgate House with the positive vibes of a tiny, friends-only basement show all night long.