I would tell you what New England improvisers Sunburned Hand of the Man will do when they play Chapel Hill Thursday, but I can't. It's not that it's a secret or that I'm not familiar with the recordings or the performances of the band that was near the center of what Wire dubbed the "New Weird America" uprising in 2003. No, I was watching Sunburned let an audience lose its mind less than 48 hours ago, on the patio of Mohawk's, a little club on Red River Road in Austin, Texas. They were wild and rhythmic and free, of course, drummer John Moloney pushing the septet to build textural smears above his broken rock beats. When Moloney sits behind his bass drum, it's as if he wants to be the barely perceptible heartbeat—all-important but hidden by the motion and power he's creating elsewhere.
Loud, powerful and sprawling: That is how they sound, generally. But, at their best, Sunburned hits this next-level, epiphanic stride that's as unpredictable as it is magnetic. Just before the band improvised the second and final piece of its Friday set, for instance, Moloney reached to his right and grabbed an orange-and-white cotton tapestry from the stage. He draped it over his head and kept it in place with a black eyepatch. When the band began, it looked something like this: The cloaked Moloney in the middle, girlfriend Sarah O'Shea leaning on an amplifier to his right while manipulating electronics, two guitarists and a bassist out front. Probably 15 minutes later, Moloney slowly crept toward the front of the stage, a rack cymbal on top of his head, eyes still hidden by the sheet. Things went wild: The drum set ended up spread across the stage, one guitarist holding a snare by the stand and playing it with a stick torn from a branch Moloney was using to beat the ceiling above the stage. Moloney ended up on the floor, wrestling a guitar away from a bandmate and piling the sticks and cymbal on top of a third guitarist, who, for the set's first 30 minutes, had been hidden behind Moloney's drum kit. It was wild.
Interesting? Possibly. Puerile? Even. Powerful? Certainly. But, sonically, the tessellated sheets of noise and busted rhythmic potshots merged into enormity. More importantly, the set busted expectations, taking a mild-mannered improvisation and putting it on the edge of failing completely. Some people got nervous, some people got silly, one kid put his tape recorder on the side of the stage and cheered. Maybe the Chapel Hill set will end in the street or with books on the floor. Either way, it will probably be worth the clean up.
Sunburned Hand of the Man plays Nightlight with White Mice, In the Year of the Pig and Gown Thursday, March 22, at 10 p.m. Tickets are $7.