Smile Politely

A Monday night at Thee DeathTower

It has been some time since I’ve been to Thee DeathTower. I walk behind a couple of dudes carrying a speaker cabinet up the stairs. Guitar amps line one wall of a long room, several people hanging about as Our Lady bassist Darwin Keup talks to friends while passing around a donations jar. People talk about past DeathTower shows, about some of the cassette tapes on sale, which they already own. People are wearing t-shirts of bands other people at the show are in, or put out on their DIY labels. Beer cans and guitars are strewn about. Paintings, drawings, cleverly defaced art, and even what looks like an eviction notice are all hung on the wall.

While outside admiring the view and the gnarled up couch, I hear an acoustic guitar being strummed and assume the show is starting. Incorrect — folks are still filtering in. I check the watch, and “punk time” is indeed being enforced, as the show was supposed to start 20 minutes ago. There’s no stage, no curtain, but nothing is ruined by the opening act basically running through a song in front of the same people he’s going to be playing to in ten minutes’ time. After several kids come in, everyone armed with their beverages and friends, the fluorescent overhead lights flip off and Old Fox Road gets going.

Old Fox Road is a band, but tonight, just one guy is singing and playing an acoustic guitar alone. The energy is high immediately, and the transition from well-lighted pre-show hangout into moody, attentive show-mode is almost jarringly smooth. I’m wondering if this room is filled with kids who wouldn’t shut up if this were a classroom, but it’s not. I’m standing in one of two rows naturally created on one side of the long room, and on the other side is all the band gear set up, and this guy singing right next to the PA speakers. He’s not using a microphone, though. He’s slamming his feet on the ground and slapping his acoustic guitar’s pick guard for percussive effect. He’s singing with a gruff voice that makes me miss my friend Ryan, who doesn’t talk like that, but sings like that. I consider how this space and this event allows people to be themselves — but also to be whomever they feel like being. The lyrics are confessional and intimate, when not broad and tackling the politics of self. The songs are most effective when parts are repeated, but at a different tempo. When this happens, it is revealed that Dylan Chupp here is indeed carrying the vibe of the room. I remember how much MxPx I listened to when I was a teenager and how we listened to lyrics for guidance and reassurance of conviction.  Chupp gives swift “Thankyous” immediately following his songs, which is an endearing tic, mentions the (full) band is recording a new album soon, and that all their current material is available for free on Bandcamp.

After about six or seven songs, Old Fox Road is done, and Single Player starts six or seven minutes after that, as their gear is already basically set up there along the wall.  The band is loud and pretty. Some songs are fast, some songs are slow; but they’re all short. The first song hits a catchy part, my brain starts running that hamster wheel sort of joyride, and then — it’s over. Another song, punctuated only by squeals of feedback, starts up.  I’m listening with great intent, although I cannot hear the guitar on the other side of the room because the guitar amp closest to me is drowning it out. I am not upset because Kamila Glowacki is a great guitarist and that Stratocaster sounds pretty cool through that DeVille or whatever it is. Derrin Coad’s bass tone is great, it’s super thick and heavy. I’m really excited by how lo-fi singer Sean Neumann’s vocals are, and I’m trying to see what’s going on with the gear to help him get that distorted tone. (I later find out, as Our Lady begins, that this is simply how the PA sounds; but, for what it’s worth, that tone is perfect for Single Player’s sound.) The sound is huge and the songs are small.  The songs I know make me sing, and the songs I don’t really recognize or remember still make me happy. Between tunes Coad mentions that it’s nice to be so close to the audience (he could reach out and touch them right now, literally), because at their last show they played they were about thirty feet from the audience — because they were opening for pop star Sky Ferreira. Drummer Jake Mott has to remind Coad that they probably think he is joking. Glowacki remarks that it did actually happen. There’s only about twenty people in here, but I am feeling crowded. My view between people’s heads is mostly of Neumann, who is playing guitar very well and keeping his eyes closed as he sings. Just like a Single Player song, Single Player’s set is over before we know it.  And we don’t want it to be. But that’s what makes it all the more precious.

The band starts packing up their gear and I head outside while Our Lady sets up. I notice cigarette butts, bottles, potted plants, and people kicking it. Some of the Death Tower folk talk about throwing a show to raise funds for a new PA. There is a merch table set up with bands’ records and more, from Our Lady’s Tim Williams’ label Guard Records. Nathan Landolt shows up and brings his Error Records distro with him as well. Someone, luckily, has hung up some black lights, so everything looks pretty cool and otherworldly.

Our Lady.

Springfield’s Our Lady starts with great energy and volume. Williams’ guitar sounds amazing when it’s isolated, but either stage mix or my location in the room, I cannot make him out for shit whenever the full band is playing. Cellist Molli Squires is eating up the high-end frequencies with an absolutely shredding electric cello, and local hero Darwin Keup’s bass controls the low end with a tough love. The timbre and songwriting are dynamic and different enough, but one true treat as I watch is seeing Keup pivot from stage left to manipulate his impressive pedalboad (mostly packed with fuzzes and overdrives) to stage right to scream his ever-loving head off counter to William’s melancholy melodies. They’re barely coming through, so some of the midrange of these dramatic and emotional tunes I am not so much hearing as feeling. And I think to myself that I prefer it this way. Darwin comes crashing towards me. I am rattled back into the moment, focusing my eyes more on what’s happening and I see all four musicians yelling the song out. After five songs, the four-piece finishes, and the room empties.

Our Lady.

Our Lady.

After a short break and a twangy soundcheck, Bad Catman start up. Back again comes that gruff voice from the beginning of the night. Back again comes the bobbing and bouncing. I am watching and listening, but also distracted. I look around the room and notice it is less densely packed, but the vibe is a bit less dangerous and a bit more party. Some folks demonstrate their drunkenness in a physical yet thankfully non-violent way. I remember when I used to play folk punk and think to myself that even when a folk punk singer is singing her or his own song, it still feels like they themselves are singing along. Musically, there’s not much impressive going on here, which is great, I don’t need to be impressed—not by the performance in that way. I am impressed because this immediately feels like a soundtrack. This isn’t a technical band; this is a good band. The music is fun and the songs are good, and the vibe is magically shifted from intense contemplative rock to rowdy shambling good times. There’s possibly something in those gruff vocals about smashing the state or something, but the fists in the air don’t feel like revolt, they feel like less a statement of purpose but an affirmation of self. I daydream and imagine these three boys getting distorted in the Grand Ole Opry. I look around Thee DeathTower and I see a scene. Someone starts can-can dancing. ‘Coupla dudes start moshing. Someone jumps on someone’s back. Someone else is being carried upside down. I think to myself, “There’s no stage diving without a stage.” This dude’s just diving. I then notice that the guitarist is playing the banjo line from Flogging Molly’s “Drunken Lullabies,” but I don’t think they’re playing that song. I don’t mind.

Bad Catman.

Bad Catman.

After the music’s done, it still rings in my ears, and outside I say some goodbyes.  I might be the only one heading out, because everyone is still having a great time even though it’s a Monday night and there is a real world out there we all have to answer to when we leave this place. I take a look out on the city, and think that this is a unique view. I take a look at the party, and think that’s a unique view, too. Maybe not everybody has to answer to the real world tomorrow morning after all.

Photos courtesy of Maddie Rehayem.

More Articles