When I arrived at Bar Deluxe, I was met with a stench of piss that may as well have punched me in the face. Somehow, the odor was less offensive to me than it was a comfort to my soul. I’ve always preferred watching live music in shitholes. When artists become too big to play them, their performances are always robbed of much-needed grit. Nothing about Bar Deluxe is “deluxe,” of course, except its ramshackle ambience. The lighting is awful. Everything is beat to shit. There’s an enormous hole in the wall that I’m guessing goes clear through to the outside. Sarah Pendleton (one of the violinists in Subrosa) and I joked that it served as ventilation for the greasy BBQ grill that they had awkwardly stowed away in a corner. In other words, the place is terrific! After surveying the room, I turned to the barkeep and he informed me that they serve tall boys of PBR at a very reasonable price—of course they do. This is my kind of joint.
As I waited for Subrosa to go on, I walked through the crowd and enjoyed my beer. I smacked my lips at the tang that only a strong whiff of urine can add to a PBR. That’s when I noticed that there were almost no women present in a sea of white men dressed in black hoodies (myself included). I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little depressing.
It is only a mild exaggeration to say that when Subrosa went on there were as many women on stage as there were in the entire audience (there are three women in the band). I get the feeling this kind of a girl to guy ratio is pretty typical of their crowds. They told me later that they felt nothing but love from their audience on this night. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Subrosa might serve as a truly profound inspiration for a lot of aspiring female musicians in town. If some of them had bothered to show up, that is. Their loss, because this group came harder than a motherfucker. This was my first time seeing them, and it won’t be my last.
Subrosa do a goth-influenced brand of doom that reminded me of early Emperor mixed with, dare I say, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Their set started with a stark and somber melody that Rebecca Vernon (guitarist) and Kim Pack (violinist) both sang over and it was here that we were treated to the night’s most gorgeous harmonies. This soon gave way to the thunder, however, and there was much headbanging. Vernon has a stoic presence on stage, and a stern look in her eye when she sings. Appropriately so, she’s telling us about some foreboding shit: “All of my life, I’ve been waiting for you,” she sings in one song—you get the sense that it’s a decidedly bad thing.
Subrosa has a lot going on right now. This was the first of two dates they had with Deafheaven (they played the next night with them in Denver, too), and their first show with their new bass player, Levi Hanna. Had I not known it was his first show, I never would have guessed it. He did great and everyone seemed to be feeling it. They did have some technical issues, mostly with feedback. I thought my head was going to explode at one point. Mostly though, they sounded incredible; there is something special about the way they exploit their two violins, it offsets the guitar in a way that I’ve never heard before. I was really quite proud to see a group from Salt Lake kill it like this.
A cocksure Deafheaven took the stage and proceeded to obliterate shit, but not without some comedy. The vocalist, George Clark, is exceptionally charismatic, but he’s also humorously intense and clearly spends a lot of time on his hair. He wore leather gloves and a tight-fitted long-sleeve shirt that showed off his muscles. My friend Danielle said he looked like Dexter. I was seeing a lot of Danzig in the poses he was constantly striking: his favorite was with one leg up on the monitor, one fist on his hips and the other holding the microphone while flexing and screaming into the faces of the boys losing their shit up front. The kids in the mosh pit hung on his every scream and didn’t seem to mind Clark’s posing. Like whack-a-moles, they popped up and down, and there I was without a mallet.
Deafheaven, on the other hand, beat them over the head relentlessly with their brutal riffage. The crowd was loving it—mostly. The dudes rocked out in their hoodies. Some of them had clearly dragged their girlfriends along, who (I have to report) mostly looked bored: texting, looking around the room, sighing, never smiling.
Still, I can see why people like this band (2013’s Sunbather was met with near-universal approval from critics). They’re fearless and their riffs are much more percussive than I ever realized listening to their record—there’s almost as much James Brown in their music as there is Wolves in the Throne Room. It was a punishing set (in the best way possible) that Deafheaven unfortunately ended with a feedback loop so obnoxious that it cleared 80-percent of the room within three minutes. When they finally turned it off and started playing Drake, I welcomed it.
“Started from the bottom now we here.”
I sat at my table and decompressed for a moment. I took a deep breath and wondered how unlikely a critical darling Deafheaven is in 2014. So few bands these days are able to connect with guitars and drums alone, but somehow they’ve done it. I left with the clear intention to spend more time with both of these artist’s discographies—but not for a few days. My ears were still ringing some 20 minutes later when I asked a friend, “What are you up to after this?” She replied, “Going home.” She looked exhausted and ready for bed. After a night of music this monstrous, so was I.