With the band hailing from California, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Girls’ sound hearkens back to quintessential Beach Boys (a la Pet Sounds). Yet Girls take advantage of the decades of musical evolution and technological progression since the mid-60s, especially the ’90s explosion of grunge-fueled distortion and reverb. And it was precisely this lovable cache of psychedelic nostalgia that they used to warm our landlocked midwestern hearts last week.
The Wexner Center is arguably one of the most solid venues in Columbus in which to experience bands, both visually and aurally. The “Black Box,” as it’s affectionately known, forces attention to the stage and artist, while literally everything else is swallowed by the proverbial black hole of dark paint that lines the room. Sound-wise, this was also the absolute ideal place to hear Girls and their wispy brand of psychedelic pop fused seamlessly with intimations of old country twang. They mounted an impeccable soundscape largely derived from a Rickenbacker guitar and two vintage Vox amps, though it’s doubtful anyone in the audience was actually old enough to appreciate this, let alone buy lottery tickets.
For all intents and purposes, the Girls’ name is surprisingly apropos to subject matter. They fashioned a blistering set of whimsical shoegaze and affecting, unrequited love songs about (what else) girls. Though materially tedious, the heartbreakingly honest lyrics, together with the band’s obvious penchant for slight improvisation whilst playing live, prevented any song from sounding the same. Even the slower cuts that seemed to meld together on 2009’s Album were awash with renewed individuality and candid touches that only a live body could produce. This was most evident throughout the first half of the set, which was chockfull of slower tunes, including singer Christopher Owens’ passionate harmonica breakdown on the crowd-pleasing “Lust for Life.”
Despite the flawless feathery sound, the one downside to seeing Owens et al. at the Wexner Center is that the focused intensity of the audience, coupled with the heavy silence that accompanied tuning and quick breaks in songs, did nothing to help Girls’ already somewhat awkward stage presence. Owens made sure not to let us forget our presumably “cushy” venue, reserving some of his precious few moments of stage banter to announce, “You guys have a really nice place here. We don’t normally get to play in places like this—don’t take it for granted.”
Yes, we are fortunate that Columbus has nice sites like the Black Box to hear music, and no, we don’t take it for granted—the ticket prices won’t let us. But Owens seemed to have overlooked the fact that Girls has also been quite fortunate in their own right. They are lucky enough to have been plucked from obscurity to play such a venue (and rightfully so, as they proved tonight), when there are so many other worthy bands that languish in house-party obscurity. So I suppose in the end, it’s a draw, and we won’t take it for granted if they don’t.
Like all one-night stands, the Wedding Present’s date at the Bowery Ballrom began nonchalantly enough. After a few casual hellos, the band, which at this point only includes one constant—principal member, songwriter, and guitarist David Gedge—from the band’s heyday about two decades ago, launched into “The Queen of Outer Space,” one of the twelve singles it placed in the UK Top 30 over the course of every month of 1992. From those first reverberating riffs, it was as if little time had passed, with our boy Gedge singing lines like, “I look beautiful beside her” from the end of his tether.
Such has always been the manic magic of this band, formed in Leeds 25 years ago. Their next song, “Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft,” from their debut, 1987’s George Best, further emphasized the timeless quality of Gedge’s po-faced lovelorn aphorisms. Commenting afterwards, he said, “I am looking good, aren’t I?” as if he was fully aware of his status as the ageless boy with a thorn in his side.
New songs followed—the already titled “I Wake Up Screaming,” which included a modern soliloquy about a paramour taking her “iPhone into the bathroom,” and the self-evident “You’re Just Too Greedy for Me,”—as well as the perennial classic pisstake on nostalgia, “Corduroy” (from the penultimate Seamonsters). But the reason everyone had gathered—as advertised—was to hear Gedge and his mates run through their artistic and commercial breakthrough, 1989’s Bizarro, from top to bottom.
From the first wanton chords of “Brassneck” and Gedge’s declarations to some unnamed tormentor that he “just decided that (he) doesn’t trust you anymore,” the venue sizzled with frenetic energy, all the unrequited lusts and dreams of the mostly 40-something male crowd suddenly propelled into the air. “Crushed” was more emblematic of the Wedding Present’s longtime MO, a frantic meshing of verse-chorus-verse and riff into a less-than-three-minutes format. Sure, everyone knew what they were getting (Gedge may have lost his way, though, having to ask what’s next before “No”), but that never lessened the execution. By the time the group had made it to “Kennedy,” the album’s “hit,” all present were swept up in Gedge and guitarist Graeme Ramsay’s spurtful fits of guitar jangle. Indeed, that song seemed to push all time aside, its spastic current as current as ever.
Sometime between the time we flipped from side one to side two, I was beginning to clearly see Bizarro’s signifiers pointing to past and present. Slow down “Take Me,” and you get “What Goes On.” Distill the cumulative effect of the band, and you get what’s passed for indie rock for the last 20 years. Gedge took on more of the six-string responsibility than I had seen him in the past, beating his Gibsons’ strings to a pulp. He looked dartingly around the room in disbelief, almost as amazed as we were to hear this recreation. When he eventually reached the epic ebb and flow of “Bewitched,” any last resources were poured into its gripping refrains.
As fitting of any Wedding Present show, there was little ceremony as it drew to a close. No encores, no monkeying for the crowd. But as the band squeezed its last pints of sweat into Bizarro’s closer, “Be Honest,” the particularity of the performance became more clear. In hearing a band divine what was once of a particular time and place, it suddenly became transcendent, the clear wringing of any strictures to be something it may have always been: a record whose collective meaning meant something so much more.