Baltimore's music scene is undeniably one of the country's best, and a good deal of credit for that goes to Thrill Jockey, a Chicago-based indie record label.
In the past several years, Thrill Jockey has signed a dozen current or former Baltimore bands, releasing their albums, supporting them on tour and, in short, helping legitimize the scene.
So it made sense that, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, Thrill Jockey held a birthday bash in Baltimore, last night at Rams Head Live.
The lineup spanned the breadth of Baltimore's experimental scene, from psych rockers Arbourteum to indie pop trio Future Islands. Singer/comedian Ed Schrader and former Double Dagger front man Nolen Strals hosted. It was a killer show -- one of those moments that made you realize how far Baltimore's scene has come in the last seven or eight years.
Pontiak, a trio of brothers who used to live in Baltimore but now reside in Virginia, opened the night with some analog-era psych rock. My ears were ringing after the first song. The riffs were nice and fuzzy, and the brothers locked into a few slow-burning grooves from their new album, "Echo Ono" -- especially on the song "The North Coast."
Each of the openers played 30-minute sets. Between them, our earnest hosts would pass out free T-shirts and other merch and tell a few jokes.
Schrader, who used to host the surrealist talk show The Ed Schrader Show, started off a little rocky but warmed considerably over the night. His take on Jeff Foxworthy was cringeworthy, but he later gave a hilarious speech as Rush Limbaugh, name-checking practically all of Thrill Jockey's bands in the process. I wouldn't be surprised if Schrader is the next Baltimore artist to sign with Thrill Jockey.
Baltimore garage/stoner rockers Arbouretum were next. Guitarist and singer Dave Heumann, who could pass for Dave Grohl's reclusive cousin, led the four-piece through a set of deliciously thick, heavy jams. They dipped into some promising new material from an album which could be released early next year.
Matthew Pierce's keyboards, percussion and samples added an extra layer to the mix, and Heumann delivered the night's best guitar solo. Why isn't he more appreciated as a guitarist?
New York electronic musician Dan Friel was up next. He sat on stage, holding a keyboard adorned with several effects pedals and string lights on his lap, and played a lo-fi mix of distorted hooks and distant beats. Friel has an ear for a melody, and, halfway through his set, brought out a viola player named Karen to accompany him. This duo worked best on one of the new songs -- they added shrieking, squeaking melodies over a pulsing beat to great effect.
The acoustics in Rams Head Live, which played to the strengths of Arbouretum and Pontiak, wasn't the best setting for Friel, though. His set sounded tinny; I'd like to see him in a more intimate space.
Baltimore electronic duo Matmos took the stage after Friel. The duo of M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel has been together as long as Thrill Jockey, both as a couple and a band. They're accomplished musicians, who've lately been adding heavy beats and poppy hooks to an already experimental sound.
Schmidt cracked a few dirty (and entirely welcome) jokes, and, backed by the drummer and guitarist from Baltimore's Horse Lords, they offered some music from their forthcoming album "The Marriage of True Minds." From the few tracks I've heard, this could be one of next year's most notable albums.
They also played the delightful track "Treasure" from their album with So Percussion, and did a cover of the Buzzcocks' "ESP," even teasing a couple bars of "On Broadway." Daniel manned samples while Schmidt played keyboard and various other instruments, including (but not limited to) a squeaky fish and a couple penny whistles.
Chicago post-rock group Tortoise, one of the night's two headliners, offered a tight set which drew heavily from the album "It's All Around You." As always, the quintet traded instruments between songs, playing drums, an electronic marimba, bass, guitar and samples. Their live shows are carefully choreographed, and the typically stoic band members loosened up a bit for last night's show.
While Tortoise's danceable beats got a few audience members moving, people went nuts for the final act, Baltimore's Future Islands. Excited by Baltimore's music scene, the trio of singer Samuel Herring, keyboardist Gerrit Welmers and bassist William Cashion moved here from North Carolina a few years ago. Since then, they've released a couple remarkable albums of retro-sounding pop, with twinkling synths, heavy bass lines and Herring's gravelly crooning.
Herring is a natural showman; he flies across the stage, dancing, punching the air and singing with an almost maniacal passion. If most other singers tried this, they'd be laughed off stage, but Herring believes in everything he sings, and his deep conviction makes you believe, too. He also has one of those classic faces with lines in all the right places; he'd be at home as the villain in a 1930s mobster film.
After two songs, Herring was dripping with sweat; after three, he was slinging his head toward the crowd, showering them with it. He'd punch his chest and a mist would form around him. It was awesome.
"I took all this Sudafed and I went from being sick to being insane," he said.
Future Islands offered material from their albums "In Evening Air" and the recent "On the Water," as well as their new single "Cotton Flower" (one of the night's standouts) and a couple unreleased songs.
A mini-mosh pit briefly formed for the heavy-hitting "Balance," but the set's highlight was "Long Flight." The song is about a musician coming home from tour and finding his girlfriend with another man. Herring really drove it home.
The night ended with a ballad from Future Islands (Dan Deacon and Strals were slow dancing in the crowd), and afterward, Strals called up the Thrill Jockey folks on stage. The audience offered a hearty round of applause, a fitting thanks for all the work Thrill Jockey has done for Baltimore bands.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun