Halloween proper fell on a Monday this year, not exactly the most raucous night of the week, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when rolling into Small’s in Hamtramck sometime after nine. The incandescently lit bar was near empty with just a few patrons casually milling about, chatting in hushed tones. But this inauspicious initial impression was not to be indicative of the night to come. It would prove to be one memorable sonic journey, languidly, almost tauntingly building up to an intense, sub-conscious crescendo I wasn’t even aware I so fiercely wanted.
Blue Black Hours, a psychedelic meets alt rock three-piece, opened the show amidst a profuse billow of simulated smoke, cascading ten feet into the growing crowd, causing one acerbic fan to cry out wryly, “More smoke please! Turn the smoke up to eleven!” The literal haze aptly mirrored the figurative haze overlaying the set of tunes they were to emit. The murky vapor finally lifted to reveal kaleidoscopic visages being projected onto a hastily hung old bed sheet, adding to the laid-back, but trippy vibe. You could almost see the black light and lava lamps that would have littered the room. Blue Black Hours’ sound lies somewhere in the fog between late 60′s/early 70′s acid rock and the more melancholic sounds of 90′s alternative, with a touch of moody metal thrown in for good measure. Lead singer and bassist John Spurrier succinctly characterized it as “Cream meets Radiohead.” There were clear influences of Doors, Pink Floyd, and Hendrix, alongside the more veiled subtleties of Black Sabbath and Tool. For a three-piece, their sound is disarmingly rich and layered; using their instrumentation to it’s fullest advantage. Scott Lyon’s extended guitar meanders were a welcome temper to Spurrier’s slow-jamming bass lines and Terry B’s metallic clattering behind the kit, whose feral style can only be likened to Animal from the Muppets. Spurrier moaned his amalgamation of Jim Morrison, Robert Plant, Trent Reznor and even, at times, early Bono inspired vocals from beneath the wide brim of an Amish felt hat. This is the kind of music you want playing while spacing out, some evening, on a bean bag in your pal’s semi-finished basement after a batch of home-grown brownies and hours of Ren and Stimpy reruns. Blue Black Hours interspersed loitering melodic wailing grooves with symbol-crashing LSD-induced rock rife with a crude, homespun grit, making for an enjoyably abstract if not schizophrenic experience.
After their set, I, offhand, asked Terry B. for a quote to which he colorfully replied, “Keep your bowels clean and trust in Jesus.” At the time, I snickered, but had no idea, just how difficult that adage would be to heed, as the ghoulish and mind-bending night wore beguilingly on. Outrageous Cherry, a classic four-piece outfit, save for the lack of high hats on the drum kit, which I didn’t actually miss, as my belly was still full on the overdose of cymbolic meat from the last set, took the stage next without fanfare. This unassuming group led by Detroit rock pillar and the handlebar mustached, Matthew Smith, looked as though they could have just formed in the backroom of a thrift shop, though they have been playing in one incarnation or another for twenty years. The bassist, Courtney Sheedy was a dead ringer for Patti Smith, while guitarist Larry Ray hid inconspicuously in the shadows of the projector throughout the set. But eclecticism in both style and sound aside, Outrageous Cherry knew what the hell they were doing with their atmospheric and moody groove kicking off the show. I was flung right back into my head whether I liked it or not, by their thoughtful lyrics and lachrymose undercurrent. Only just starting to appreciate the ambient sound in general, I was immediately converted upon hearing the lyrically heady Stooges-nod, “Self-Made Monster,” with its fuzzy tone and raw Detroit crunch I come to jones for. The antiqued bed sheet was put to good use once more with the projection of all-cerulean swirls and paisleys, lending to the obvious metaphor. Their sound is like the illegitimate child of an unhinged proto-pop and a leaden, garage rock mistress with a disconcerting, severe lyrical brooding streak. Outrageous Cherry culls from a vast retro musical repertoire, plucking the best parts of country, doo-wop, soul, forgotten Motown girl groups, folk, punk and straight-on rock to form a singular musical vein evocative of a 60′s that never was, but that should have been. The mordant and bitter words of the quasi-political “Stay Happy,” like “Stay happy though the world is a ball of destruction…though the nuclear world is just a short fuse away, trade your stocks, change your socks under skies of grey,” incongruently tango with its light, poppy rhythm and toe-tapping drum beat, but then I’ve always been a sucker for an ironic juxtaposition of saturnine or macabre lyrics against a buoyant, upbeat backdrop a la Warren Zevon; a patent would-be anthem for the Occupy Detroit protest. The vocals were padded by minimalist drummer, Carey Gustafson who would pipe in on occasion for an unexpected, but sweet harmony with lead vocalist and guitarist Smith; their organum even reaching a Mama’s and Papa’s-esque zenith at one point. Their mixed bag of dysphoric, mellow, not-quite ballads and psych-tinged rock stompers left my bifurcated head swimming with contemplative thoughts and what I assumed were long-repressed emotions. It’s no easy task to lure out both the emotional and intellectual side at once, as they so often tend to be mutually exclusive, but Outrageous Cherry accomplishes this with their phrenic, but relatable stream of consciousness lyrics, cerebral, neo-country, Wilco undertones and morose Velvet Underground-inspired overtones. If Blue Black Hours was frivolous spacing out on a bean bag early in the evening, Outrageous Cherry was the inevitable three AM come-down. You’re still pretty spacey by this time, but talk has turned from convivial nonsense and uncontrollable laughter to more austere philosophical subjects like heartbreak, atrocities, searching for meaning and the banality of it all. The subconscious has been massaged and loosened by the first set and once deeply-buried pure emotions have flooded into consciousness by the second. The mood has transitioned almost imperceptibly from psychedelic to psychological, but the night is far from over.
My brain is in a disorienting state of sullen flux by this point. The previous bands unknowingly dredged up novel, awkward, and taxing sentiments and I am left at a fork in the road. I need something to rapidly slam my subconscious window shut or ascend my cortex to a cosmic apex outfitted to deal with such perilous predicaments. It would fortuitously be the latter, in spades. The Witches impressive roster is replete with Detroit rock royalty and national buzzwords, with members from the Dirtbombs, The Sights, and LCD Soundsystem; Troy Gregory on obscene vocal, Eugene Strobe banging the kit, and Phil Skarich grooving the bass, respectively. Jeff Oakes, from the Volebeats, even irreverently remarked, Detroit rock bands are “totally incestuous”, but at least self-aware. The raucous retinue is rounded out by Peter Andrus and Greg Bayer, both on guitar. The show blasted on all cylinders right out of the gate with a contentious and rollicking cacophony, not a hint of foreplay; it wasn’t missed. It was an aural shot of rock and roll heroin straight to the vein, and it left me wanting for naught. The Witches’ emphatic and captivating frontman jumped off the stage during the first song, and many subsequent times after, to a rushing crowd quick to encircle him, like some sort of orchestrated satanic ritual. He enthralled with his cocky strides across the stage, near splits and supernatural convulsions, stopping only to fall down on his knees to demonically channel the rock gods or throw his head back in a maniacal lupine howl. It was as if he crushed the bones of Johnny Rotten, Lux Interior and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins into a fine powder (and maybe just a bantam piece of Elvis Costello) and snorted them as part of apt voodoo hex before the show. Gregory’s intense guttural cackles and enigmatic shrieks pierced through the thick and haunting instrumentation without competition. The band was expectedly tight-sounding, being seasoned musicians, but they were surprisingly without the engorged ego that tends to accompany that much street cred; they had evolved past it, which led to an organic, almost off-the-cuff sound like they had just come up with their utopian jams on the very spot. The vociferous tunes oozed out of some lurid and caliginous recess of their soul, deepening the already corpulent other-wordly atmosphere. The more cacophonous punches gave way to unearthly melodic extended jams and Patti Smith-style lyrical poems which tied together the trivia of the first set with the gravity of the second through a bi-polar energy. As I tried to painstakingly characterize their sound in my increasingly cryptic state, as a melange of acid rock, proto-punk, ambient, raw garage rock, a warped sliver of country and a trace of surfer-billy, I realized the difficulty didn’t lie in my depressed brain function, but in the futility of defining The Witches. Recondite and abstruse; their sound is so eclectic it turns novel and they defy categorization. Any comparisons got sucked out of the air-lock chamber they blew open long ago. Admittedly, at this juncture, my notes get increasingly illegible, indecipherable, (like the chestnut, “Key to the spirit of the night” which has absolutely zero meaning to me now) and farther between, as my mind blanks and my body overtakes; a testament to their rock efficacy. The experience is becoming exponentially more personal and far less professional. My yellow legal pad and pen have become cumbersome burdens standing in the way of my visceral shared ascension. My thoughts recede and a more primordial system claws at the helm. I can feel what paltry inhibitions I had left dissolve into the occult air as I began to thoroughly and holistically trip from the metaphysical nature of the music rapaciously assaulting my senses, only compounded by the bizarre, non sequitur Germanic visages of Holy Mountain being projected onto thread-bare linens. I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling the celestial freedom, as one drunken fan whispered in all earnest “Are you a vampire?” while raising a wooden stake to my heart, which wasn’t nearly as disarming as the licentious pervert in transit that swiftly put his hand up my dress and was gone before I could even react. My body, like most in the crowd, swaying and gyrating of its own volition. If Blue Black Hours and Outrageous Cherry unknowingly caused me to space out and tap into my repressed emotions, The Witches with their sonic alchemy, have very deliberately opened up a subconscious wormhole which provides the portal to transcend to another musical and erudite dimension, just before dawn is to break. Not one to leave the crowd feeling cheap in their heightened state of cosmological awareness without a little snuggling and a cigarette, Gregory performed a stirring and intimate cover of Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” against a bare bones electric guitar backdrop, by way of The Cramps. I was left wholly satiated. With any universal karma at all, The Witches will be “creeping through your galaxy tonight;” taking you from psychedelic to psychological to psychotropic in the course of one cabalistic night.
Post Script: “Detroit will never die. It will never shed its skin.”~ one of the few lyrics I caught in my ethereal Witches-induced stupor.