Rock bands have died as a market force, but these shows from earlier in the week are reminders of why people still pick them up.
In the battle of guitars vs. turntables, the DJs won. Electronic music flows from the days of two turntables and a microphone, and the bricolage sensibility that drove it is now manifest in the pop marketplace and indie spaces. The ultimate sign of the DJs’ success is the number of ad jingles and TV theme songs that feature electronic music. When you’re part of the wallpaper of people’s lives, you won.
Monday night in New Orleans had to be thought of with that background because not only was it guitar night, but it was power pop night, power pop being the middle ground first envisioned by people—guys, let’s get real—who loved heavy guitars and The Beatles. Neither Mike Krol or Tony Molina were quite so old school, with punk more than ’70s hard rock in their lineage, but both were clear reminders of why and how people used to pick up guitars in the first place.
Mike Krol played Gasa Gasa, and he made it to television in animated form on Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe. That appearance felt like the show’s makers’ fandom in action, but it portrayed him accurately enough as a true garage band,—not one that lifts liberally from The Rolling Stones-like psychedelic blues rock but one that plays hard and loud because they could be told to knock it off and go home at any moment.
They weren’t going to get cheated out of their evening’s rock ’n’ roll, which made the show exciting. In a space the size of Gasa Gasa though, it was hard to respond to more than the basic pleasure that comes with hard and loud. The stage volume was such that Krol’s vocals were barely audible, and what you could hear was lost in a wash of reverb. Without melodic or lyrical content to distinguish them, Krol’s songs began to run together. They were cool knots of sound that borrowed from Memphis blues, ‘90s alternative rock, and classic pop, but at some point the differences between the songs stopped being meaningful.
Bay Area punk Tony Molina’s set was more successful in the middle of a big rock night at Republic. Between Richmond, Virginia’s noise/hardcore band Candy and the shoegazer band Nothing, Molina sandwiched 20 or so songs in a half-hour set. Compression is Molina’s thing, and his 2014 album Dissed and Dismissed gets through 12 songs in fewer than 12 minutes. Last year’s Kill the Lights saw his average song length bloat up to more than a minute with 10 songs that take another 12 minutes to hear, but speed is not the issue. His inner punk doesn’t express itself at blitzkrieg tempos. Instead, Molina trims his songs to the bone, letting one verse and chorus do the work instead of two, and in some cases he skips the chorus and lets an emotional set of words stand naked for greater effect.
In the live setting, Molina’s voice suffered as well, not because the band overwhelmed it but because it’s a fragile instrument, particularly as he employs it. The intimacy and introspection in his songs need a more gentle voice and occasional harmonies, but in concert he trades that for more visceral thrills of rock ’n’ roll, ones closer to those on Dissed and Dismissed. The acoustic and chiming guitars from his albums were replaced three electric guitars, momentary squeals of feedback before and after each song, and many songs that started or ended with Thin Lizzy-like dual guitar leads. The emotionally wounded Molina on record was replaced in concert by a guy who shouted “West Bay all day!” between songs.
That trade-off worked because Molina made his show a rock ’n’ roll show and left the vulnerability expressed in his songs for those listening on their own. PR copy for Kill the Lights signals an affection for Teenage Fanclub and Weezer in addition to hardcore, and you could hear those affinities in the show, but with far less of the self-satisfaction that Rivers Cuomo can’t help but radiate for covering Toto. Molina closed with a raggedly exciting cover of The Replacements’ “Left of the Dial” as a shout out to another band that loved punk and pop in equal measures.
Part of the fun of Molina’s show was that it worked. He wasn’t as emotional as he is in the studio, but his exercise in melody fed through Marshalls won over an audience that was otherwise there for guitar noise and distortion. His set and Mike Krol’s invited you to wonder how the night before went, and the night before that. Was Krol that sonically punishing every night, or was Gasa Gasa too small for his sound? Or was the stage volume an expression of frustration with a Monday night and a middling crowd? Are there venues where sound men didn’t have to sacrifice Molina and Krol’s vocals to the rampaging temperament of electric guitars and the people who play them?
Laptops, controllers, and the gear of electronic artists have their own idiosyncrasies, and I’m sure that they are unpredictable in their own way. But it’s hard to imagine that they, played individually or in duos or trios, present the same range of possible performance outcomes as a rock band. Do we want potentially volatile musical entertainment that could soar or break-up and storm off the stage mid-song? I do, but I understand those who want the shows they pay to see to be more reliable and the songs they like to sound right.
Neither show was earth shattering, and neither drew more than 100 people on Monday night. They didn’t give me a reason to think that the tide is finally turning back toward electric guitars, but they were reminders of why people still pick them up. The pleasure Krol and Molina took is playing an instrument that manipulated electricity into shape was obvious, and even when I didn’t connect with the songs, I connected with the big picture.