The Men Go Down Fighting

Sometimes a venue steals the show for the right reasons. And then there are nights when the venue punches your junk. Last night, the Waldorf Cabaret pulled a Sonny Chiba.

In what had to be one of the most anticipated events of 2012, Brooklyn noise-quartet The Men besieged the swanky, circular cabaret of the Waldorf Hotel. Playing to a packed if unanimated crowd, The Men went off like a bomb. Topping a bill of adrenalized musical fury, the men in The Men lived up to the hype generated by their current album, Open Your Heart. That album alone has redeemed what has been a disappointing year for new music. And in what should have been the gig of the year (until Bruce Springsteen strolls into town with his travelling circus), The Men did all they could to put on stage the same animal presence that was captured on disc.

Well, they got close at least.

On stage The Men are all rocker hair, sweat-soaked T-shirts, frantic fingers and absolute white light/white heat. Sadly, as great as the music sounded, much of the magic behind the Men’s success was lost. On record, the band comes across as true descendents of the Husker Dü/Pixies school of power pop: blending a hardcore rhythmic surge and a scathing assault of guitars with searing, melodic vocal leads. The vocals are not merely screamed or yelped, burped or otherwise disgorged; they come tumbling out of the chaos in a perfectly formed and precise meter. On this night, the same vocals that on record are of a divine garage band were simply swallowed up in a funnel. Standing at various points of the cabaret didn’t help clear this up. Like listening to music through one headphone or a set of blown speakers, the Men fought bravely against the muddy mix.

This wasn’t a problem strictly for the headliners either, but a predicament shared by all bands this night.

Open Your Heart”, the album’s greatest moment and third song of the set, was a blissful blast of proto-garage sputum. But with the audio funnel as described above, it was like watching a bootleg TV performance rather than a live performance.  “Turn it Around” was lightning fast and as hard as thunder. For the few minutes of this performance no muddiness in the vocals could detract from the sheer manic presence of the band. On a cramped stage the guys jostled for positioning as they tore into their gear with a cannibal’s glee. Playing a mix of new songs and old, The Men played to the limitations of the venue with skull-caving dedication. I haven’t felt so fantastically abused by sound since Lee Renaldo’s performance at Rifflandia in 2010.

The other acts on the bill also could have let their vocalists have the night off. But like the Men, both Sex Church and White Lung played on and delivered sets worthy of CBGBs.

Placing Vancouver punk darlings White Lung on this bill was a masterstroke. Although a good chunk of the audience left after White Lung, their performance was the perfect setup for the headliners. White Lung’s 2010 debut left me cold, which in turn meant I overlooked the recently released Sorry. Well, it’s my turn to say sorry.  Having now experienced their live set, (even if in an imperfect setting), the full lure and power of White Lung has been revealed to me. White Lung played it loose with a pedals-to-the-metal vitality without coming across as derivative. Consider me a convert to their sonic gospel.

Speaking of Gospel.

Sex Church is neither sexy nor pious. However, the ruckus that these Vancouverites kicked up was ferocious. Imagine a garage rock kumite between The Modern Lovers and the Jesus and Mary Chain, throw in some choreography by Thurston Moore and voilà! Sex Church! These future headliners are big on reverb and distortion but not as a gimmick or a means of hiding mistakes. Sex Church ruts around the din they create, manipulating and extracting further layers and chunks of atonal gold.

In what could have been a complete wash of an evening, all three bands delivered sets with full abandon. I’d pay to see this lineup again. But maybe they can take over the Commodore next time.