"Oh, stop!" were the first words out of David Yow's mouth last night in Philadelphia as his band, the Jesus Lizard, took the stage at a sold-out Union Transfer and he waved his hand dismissively in a faux gesture of humility. A few seconds later the rest of the band was off into the crushing riffage of "Puss," and he was off as well: off the stage -- horizontally riding the crowd as he delivered his vocal chaos -- seemingly off balance, and off the hook. Within a few more minutes, as the band ground another song to a simultaneously punishing and precise halt, another Yow emerged.
The faux humility was gone. He knew they were killing it:
"Amazing. Fucking amazing," Yow said in wonderment of his bandmates. "I am SO HAPPY for you people to get to see this." And then a wry smirk came across his face: "This has to be the highlight of your life. I mean, after all, you live in Philadelphia."
"One [Steve] Albini trademark was to mix the vocals very low -- on the Jesus Lizard albums that Albini recorded, singer David Yow sounds like a kidnap victim trying to howl through the duct tape over his mouth; the effect is horrific."
--Michael Azerrad ("Our Band Could Be Your Life")
My attempts to describe the sound of the Jesus Lizard invariably end up at some sort of melange of noise and math rock -- maybe the Butthole Surfers and Fugazi had a love child? (That's reasonably close, actually). But I most like what my rock-critic friend Mark Deming just today said about the band: "An amazing balance of precision and chaos."
Yeah. That's the one. Precision and chaos.
Mac McNeilly (drums) and David Wm. Sims (bass) lay down a thunderous groove, often in time signatures that seem familiar, but which then veer off to something more unsettling -- after which they return to the familiar. Repeat, ad infinitum. The two are so inextricably bound together that I just assume that they eat meals at the same time even when they are thousands of miles apart. They sound a little bit like it would if, in a cartoon, you threw a perfectly-tuned drum kit and bass guitar down the stairs, and they landed together. The rumble is frantic, but with the exacting perfection of genius musicians.
Over top of that rhythm ride two things, one providing shimmering texture and one... uh, not. Duane Denison's guitar is the texture. While McNeilly and Sims roar and seeth, Denison adds flavor, sometimes joining in the musical brutality of the rhythm section, but more often operating in (somewhat) more ethereal tones.
When I first heard this band, I thought vocalist David Yow's name was Yowl. It would fit. He provides most of the chaos. Yow speaks, growls, screams, and occasionally sings the words. Most of the time, I have to look up the lyrics; sometimes when I do, I wish I hadn't.
I knew all that -- I've owned this band's records for years -- but nothing prepared me for the first time I saw them live.
That first time -- inexplicably (I have no excuse) -- was last night.
Christ, it was powerful. It was, no shit, one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. My thesaurus is broken. I have no more words. Everything I just said about the nearly disturbing power of this band? In the live context, it's increased by several orders of magnitude. These men are all in their late fifties, just a couple years older than I am, but McNeilly attacks the drums with the testosterone-fueled aggression of a teenager and Yow spends song after song stage diving while continuing to vocalize as the crowd passes him around. Sims and Denison are less physically aggressive than their bandmates, but their musical delivery is no less precise, mathematical, and deadly.
I really don't know that in 41 years of seeing bands that I've ever seen anything better than the Jesus Lizard last night. And they went on for 26 songs -- 15 in the regular set and then three multisong encores. I believe the set was the same exact order as this one, but I'll post the Philly setlist when it gets published.
Ordinarily, I'd tell you what the very biggest highlights of the evening were, but every single song fit that bill. Yes, 26 strategic blasts of perfect tactical chaos. I'm a drummer; I've played in bands for years, and I simply don't know how they pulled off that sustained intensity for a whole set, and I don't know, specifically, how Mac McNeilly isn't in the fucking hospital, or, at a minimum, on long-term doses of anti-inflammatories.
I hit the drums really fucking hard, harder than most guys my age. But Mac hits them harder. Sometimes most of the joints in my body ache as a result of the way I play. In fact they ache so hard that a soon-to-be post will address the relative wonders of CBD oil for chronic pain. But... Mac, dude, sir, I do not know how the hell you do what you do. But please keep doing it.
This band is a multiheaded hydra of power and precision. And, yeah, chaos too. They have no peers.
It may take weeks for me to fully recover from this one.