CMJ Day Two: Salem Briefly Shuts Everyone Up at Ramiken Crucible
Wednesday, October 20
Better than: Black Kids at the R Bar, 2007.
Salem are referred to by some as witch house, drag, haunted house, or. . . never mind. The point is that people are actively referring to Salem. Curmudgeons who turn typing into rent checks are arguing about Salem. Snobs who speculate about formative moments in art movements are conversing about Salem. Terence Koh, who showed up in his white sheet, is certainly referencing Salem. Not sure what Liv Tyler is talking about, but she's definitely in line for the bathroom here whispering about something.
The conversation? A bunch of art scumbags with high-profile drug/creative world connections aren't cooperating with the social rules foisted on bands these days. They are assholes. They don't rehearse before corporate showcases. They don't seem very interested in the obligations of foot-soldier publicity. They remix Gucci Mane badly and offer a white skate-hippie doing DJ Screw. Their music is ethereal, gothy, layered, desperate, with occasional rapping? These songs don't neatly fit into any parameter, so people have constructed new ones, and all of this has led to small measures of public embarrassment.
You know who's not embarrassed? Salem. They sincerely don't give a fuck, and unlike Vampire Weekend, they are at least forthcoming with their universal disdain. They go on very late, well after 1:30 am, for a 90-person-capacity show advertised to begin at 10--such scheduling revolts are normal in a world where people smoke crack and don't deign to wake up for phonecalls from the New York Times, but ruinous for professionals with morning responsibilities to navigate. A guy behind me (who turns out to be Flavorpill's social media manager) is getting increasingly restless that Salem haven't gone on yet around one in the morning, and becomes indignant during the genuinely terrible bony-booty-jam warm-up of How To Dress Well. "Unlike Michael Stipe and James Franco, I actually have to go to work in the morning," he says. This will be his fourth time seeing Salem, he adores them, and he would only miss them if they stole his baby and killed his family or something exaggerated like that. And after seeing their live experience, I sort of get it.
When they finally go on, before approximately 50 people who paid $20 to be there and 40 others who know something the others don't, Salem are spellbinding. Sure, they have famous groupies and meth-clinic style: John Holland, the guy who moans, plays keyboards, and wakes up for reporters, is now bald except for a ducktail; Jack Donoghue, the stringy long-hair who's responsible for the phlegmy faux-Southern rapping, shows up in shorts and looks like he has bedbugs; resident Cocteau Twin Heather Marlatt has bleached hair and dominatrix boots. But amid bass-triggered strobes, fog thick enough for Jack the Ripper, and a cerulean and crimson light show, they are three figures conjuring coma sex, piety, death-bed weightlessness. The rapping only lasts one song, then the rapping guy remains crouched in the back, a forgotten wrinkle. Then the pagan synths and the aloof vocals and the breathy incantations and the near-blinding strobes and the air of a bona fide moment suffocates the room--and it is truly, existentially, transcendent. For just a moment, there's no conversation about Salem.
Critical Bias: The promoter who threw this show once let me and a friend crash in his camper when we were bedless at SXSW. Thank you, Seva.
Overheard: A suited woman to Terence Koh, "Either way, a friend of yours is a friend of [sic] me."