Thee Oh Sees, Whatever Brains
Krankies Coffee, Winston-Salem
October 31, 2013
About halfway through "I Come From the Mountain," just as Thee Oh Sees' tenacious groove reached a fever pitch that wouldn't break for another hour, two crowd-surfers met in the middle of the room. One of the dudes climbed on top of the other, grabbing his comrade by the shirt and shaking him with blind elation. It lasted only a moment, as their combined weight soon brought them crashing to the ground (happily without injury), but it got after what makes this San Francisco foursome so engaging: Their ferocity never necessitates brutality.
On Halloween night in Winston-Salem, they whipped a packed Krankies into frenzy. Second guitarist Petey Dammit stoked the engines with sharp fills and unstoppable bass lines as Mike Shoun hit snares and toms with the efficiency of pistons. But Thee Oh Sees were elevated most by their frontman: John Dwyer's crazed guitar melodies, delivered on a flashy clear-body SG, accented and instigated the group's unstoppable pulse, flitting from krautrock vigor to psych-surf flare, while his buds held the middle ground. His presence—along with precise harmonies from keyboardist Brigid Dawson—allowed them to tear through variations of the same infectious rhythm. The possibilities seemed infinite.
At Thee Oh Sees' feet, a mosh pit erupted, overflowing with smiles and back slaps. Stage divers were met happily. Beers were thrown, but nobody seemed to get upset. Fake cobwebs were ripped from the rafters, and a slight woman dressed as Wednesday Addams jumped and shoved, never threatened by anyone around her. At their best, Thee Oh Sees inspire a very physical kind of joy. Thursday was no exception.
Also on the bill were Raleigh's Whatever Brains. The band's addiction to subversive humor and abrasive textures made them apt openers on the four-band bill. All five members appeared in minimal costumes, but singer Rich Ivey made the most impactful choice, wearing a pink devil mask that initially impeded his vocals. He soon ripped off the snout, wearing the torn visage with pride, highlighting the impish nature of his snotty sarcasm.
As it always does, the outfit's presentation differed drastically from the last time I saw them. These days, they don't play much guitar, foregoing the colorfully refracting riffs that were their trademark a year ago. In their place, the Brains offer fierce rhythms—guitarist William Evans now sticks to toms and keys—and walls of harsh, undulating synthesizer. Against all odds, they kept this dense onslaught sprightly, turning in engaging takes on material from their latest self-titled effort and an elongated closer that twisted tones and tempos with sadistic glee.
Makes sense: They were led by a demon.