The Danielson X-perience Pt. 2
By Edgar White | 10 June 2006
Where: The Lakeshore Theater, Chicago, Illinois
When: May 25, 2006
Daniel wished me luck and I asked him if he was going to stay for the concert, reminded him he’s on the list if he had any desire in grabbing a seat and witnessing the show of shambling armature; reverse that, maybe, placehelders hold the other way around, but still Thanks, Lucks, and VIPs were passed through the curry-soaked air, between Daniel Smith and I. I wondered how much of our interchange was ritual, how much innervated by politeness. I traced back conversational blocks: where we sparred witticisms, where, together, we waxed politico-semantics and chastened spiritual insincerity, where I was humored or where, instead, I lead and chided the subject. Where could we find equal ground, artist and bland tale-teller? We parted by way of me parting the stage’s back curtain, me struggling through folds of felt and vinyl, me finally seeing again the stairs following from my left to the theater’s main floor. There I am, busily thinking through my interrogation as I pick a seat an hour before the opener should come on, slightly right of middle, second row, only to spring up immediately for the bar. There I’m, complimenting the bar lady for her impeccable PBR pour but ravaging every word in my imagined recollection of Q&A. Should I have dipped when I dabbled, backed off when I antagonized, skirted when I pounced? Even sipping, there again in my seat, staring at the tiered stand of keyboards and chimes, I review slide after internal slide of my posture, my hand gestures, my slouching, suspecting I ended up appearing half-way between a groveller and a prime stock stud. Inevitable, it seems, is the failure of my social prowess to exact a bewitching effect over the brilliant musician, as is the haughty space and time it takes to march the reader through such lengthy psychological dalliances, which, to my credit, demonstrates the consequence of my relationship with Danielson, a union as intimate as could be allowed given our previous lack of contact, never really clear until our PR-appointed tryst: I’m uneasy because, God willing, I just want to — must somehow — protect the guy.
Let me explain myself while Detholz! plays. Like a more obsessively contrapuntal Andrew Bird, Danielson Live seems an impossibility. Too many parts vie for too many slots, enough that their balance would amount to a superhuman task. I want the band to succeed, but the outcomes make me nervous. Could I use the power of the internet to both warn, champion, and ultimately protect the artists? Can I singlehandedly couch them in a laudatory glow that both binds their parts and allows for disparate discovery? As an antithesis, it’s important to watch Jim Cooper, lead singer and brimstone rhythm guitarist of the band currently performing, complimenting the theater on its conference aesthetic, almost taunting its conservative quiet. Detholz! warrants seizures, you see, cuts up riffs with stentorian sing-speak, and Cooper plays a part, equally warm and ominous. The synth legato and tidbits of falsetto harmony tell of “Christian kitsch” while each pranging jab means a dilation of Satan’s muscle. Cooper’s carving out a spot as master cock-o-tha-walk, part macho swagger and part tight glam maestro, right? So, the Lakshore Theater audience, summarily exposed before, in any venue, to similar gut poetry and postured verve, still seems captivated by the openers. Even with smooth skin and wiry frames, the band carries an image of excessive practice, of repetition begetting tightness and tightness begetting sharp, stinging beats. Watch how Cooper stretches out his arms, he holds out honed music only as symbolic of itself, and wallows in that image. Pronounced “Death Holes.” A single band member is a “Dethol” I’m told. We’ll ignore the exclamation mark, let the little stick-dot slide as a matter of the band’s persistence after a decade. Even after opening for Wilco on a few occasions.
During this particularly bracing harmony, during a new song, what is this called, “Cast Out Devils” right, I’m excited by the first time the group sounds wide, by the first time the music turns out as fattened as the group seems able. They’re a five-piece, but sound remarkably thin; I can imagine them being a five-piece forever, thin until the end of time. I find Cooper a possessed vagabond, ya know. His drummer could drop dead mid-stroke and Cooper would still push the rhythm, would still recite Jim Morrison smatter. I smell a whole different beast in Danielson.
As it turns out, I was right. Admittedly, we’ve returned uncomfortably to past tense only to emphasize the dramatic juxtaposition between opener and headliner. As such, the theater was filled, stocked with tropes and milieus and such. The current incarnation of Danielson trickled onstage, assembled into spots, and began the diminutive intro to “Ship The Majestic Suffix.” Daniel’s sisters railed against their brother’s powerful voice, Rachel’s xylophone against David’s punchy cymbals. The effect was cacophonous, pummeling where the Detholz! was skimming, pubescent where the openers were wearied and skinned. “They are afraid, but so are we,” if I could’ve almost held a note, I’d finish that line and join the band in demolition. Which happened; they flaked apart, the whispered outro to “Suffix” a vacuum in the theater’s space; and into “Cast It At The Setting Sail,” as martial and tumbling as the group could get, assuming every modifier that sounds apt because of a “ck” digraph. “Bloodback On The Halfshell” followed, slid in, really, predictable but in goddamn step. I whistled along when I knew to, a sheep, sure, a fanboy, yes, but completely pleased with myself. The audience devoured the venue to find Ships transformed, splayed out and syllabic, hurried through the night. Tick-ticka ticka-tick, tick-ticka-ticka, etc.…only so much louder. More bass.
They stayed away from ballads and slowburns that night. No Laziness. No Lions Sleeping. No Dan by himself, a single acoustic and maybe a piano line, no “Torched.” No hushed awe from an encapsulated crowd. Instead, because every audience necessitates at least one hirsute jackass emboldened with alcohol and confidence in his — I have yet to encounter a particularly annoying female hirsute jackass — piercing craw, moments of silence, like when the band waits patiently for Dan to toddle to his trumpet case, are interrupted by a wailing, “Too quiet!” The frontman pulled out his horn, the stage lights made ugly the pocked brass, and he encouraged the Lakeshore Theater Spotlight Whoever to hoist a beam onto the audience dude. Dan said something about having no catchphrases or banter, nothing like “Snoop Dogg.” He stopped, then grinned, “Trumpetizzle, maybe,” discouraging the audience from clapping at his improv. And then, perhaps, in a tizzy, Daniel fussed through “Did I Step On Your Trumpet’s” only trumpet part, maybe even giving up before moaning in consternation. Greedily, the song took on a dark complexion. A song about forgiveness and acceptance it once was, returned in throbbing, bruised strictures. Oh, how the acoustic guitar’s lowest notes sounded absolutely sinister. The chorus, that soaring euphony of every extraneous piece of the band, became glorious in turn.
Soon after, “Kids Pushing Kids” fooled the audience by switching up accents, upbeat to downbeat and back. We were warned, but still failed to clap along correctly, tuckered out enough by the bridge to be honestly surprised by how dynamic, in volume alone, the band could get, Daniel especially, who seemed more a conduit for his voice than one in control. “Time That Bald Sextant” was, then, possibly the only disappointment of the night, simply because its ferocious choruses weren’t given the space they deserved, rushed from stippled taps to coursing power chords. “Animal In Every Corner” from Brother Is To Son was the first deviation from Ships, and, while stretching Dan’s voice to unbearable, repetitive limits, which is amazing to watch live, the sinews in Dan’s neck beat red and comic book taut, it became obvious how superior Ships is to any of Daniel Smith’s other work. “Corner” was dissolute and crumbling while follower, “Two Sitting Ducks,” contrasted the older song with one of seizing might. Rachel and Megan carried the deal; the anarchic ending was an unbelievable sigh of tension release. And so was “Five Stars And Two Thumbs Up,” an obvious close to the set, but nonetheless, jittery and rousing.
Even more, they didn’t waste our time. They left stage, maybe had a quick sip of water, and reemerged, leaping headlessly into “Things Against Stuff.” If I had paid for the ticket (snap!) I would have felt completely justified in the price if only to hear Dan yelp, “Things against stuff, yeah!” over and over again. Then, reading my mind, satiating my thirst for screaming, they completed the show with a sing-along “Cutest Lil’ Dragon.” We all sounded pretty good, but then again, it’s easy to sound in key when hundreds of voices are scouring the spectrum of vocal range.
In the end, as curfew so deemed, the show was a spectacular flurry. Exciting to hear all the hits and American standards right up in my ear holes, but the most compelling parts of the night were the perch on the end of my fold-up seat, the breath bated, the clenched fists, all because of Danielson’s tumultuous grasping at solidity. Ships is both great and illusory because most Danielson Famile songs sound a hair’s breadth away from collapse. The new LP is rigorous and thick, but the show, which brought the newest compositions back into the ramshackle frame of previous outings, consolidated the Danielson community, even while brimming into absurdly unrefined tangents. I was scared for ‘em, scared they’d fall apart, scared of Dan’s voice, scared of the quiet solemnity of their uniforms, scared of the trumpet. Not terrified, mind you, just unsettled, tense, even when celebratory. So, in commemoration, I bought a tee-shirt. The medium size was much too big, especially when prescribing to the hipster mantra of tight, homoerotic jeans and faded “vintage,” so I went with the Small “Did I Step On Your Trumpet” graphic. Megan and Rachel sold merch, and so I trusted their judgment. Later, I discovered I had purchased a girl’s shirt, a discovery not made until I was wearing the shirt and Dom’s girlfriend laughed at me. Yes, the tee was surprisingly small, stultifying, and yes, the fabric was much too soft and comfortable to be guys’ garb, but I persisted in my fandom, insisted I could stretch the cloth to wearable extremities.
I failed, and ended up just giving the souvenir to Dom’s ladyfriend. Oh well: I feared retribution. I feared the World could see my burgeoning gut much too clearly. Fear, it seems, makes for wild music, makes for humble endurance, but is not something I can tolerate in fashion.