I rolled into Public Assembly like a wheelbarrow full of suck. It was Thursday, and I’d worked late as the fourth day of the kind of week where even when I was ahead of myself, I was still behind (so much so, you might say, that I’m writing and posting this review over the weekend). Morale was low. What I needed was a bit of rock and roll revival, and in that regard, I was lucky it was The Midnight Ghost Train I was on my way to see.
The Kansas rockers you might recall from their stint earlier this year opening for Truckfighters (reviews here and here). They’re out touring — as they do, all the time — in support of their new album, Buffalo (review here), doing a US run before heading to Europe this fall. Simply put, they rip live. I liked Buffalo a lot when I reviewed it, and I still dig that record however long it’s been later (I thought I had it or I’d have picked up a CD at the show — more the fool I), but I know from the four or five times I’ve seen them over the last four years or so that they’re an entirely different beast on stage. Public Assembly paired them with local outfits Reign of Zaius and Eidetic Seeing, the latter of whom was just getting ready to go on as I arrived.
Some bands you can just feel the heat off the their tubes as they play, and that was the case with Eidetic Seeing. I knew nothing about the band — I could’ve easily looked them up beforehand, but frankly, I like going into shows sometimes without knowing what I’m going to get — and was pleased to find them a warm-toned heavy psych jam unit. The three-piece were still pretty clearly getting their bearings sound-wise, but it could’ve been much worse. There were maybe 15 or 20 people there when they got going, but Eidetic Seeing may have had the biggest crowd of the night, and the young lady who stood several feet in front of the stage seemed to love it.
They were, however, too loud for the room — which, if you’re keeping track, I believe makes me too old for the room. I like Public Assembly‘s back room. I saw Windhand and Pilgrim there with Magic Circle a few months back and dug the space, the layout of the darkened room reminding me of any number of dingy spots in and around Manhattan where these kinds of shows have happened throughout the last decade — the difference being that Public Assembly hasn’t been forced out of business as so many others have by the onslaught of corporately-owned or sponsored venues and promotion companies. Lucinda Williams was playing down the block at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Obviously I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, but at least on the surface, there seemed to be peaceful coexistence, and the bar between the two venues had live gypsy jazz, which, you know, is fucking awesome.
However, I only know about it because I went outside. Eidetic Seeing‘s wash of noise came through the Public Assembly P.A. as more abrasive than I think it wanted to be, so after several songs, I took my leave and took the air, chatting outside with The Midnight Ghost Train‘s guitarist/vocalist Steve Moss about how the shows were going, mutual acquaintances, and so forth. After a while, I decided to head back in, because I didn’t want to miss Reign of Zaius‘ start, and Eidetic Seeing were just finishing up. They had played a long set. I guess you can do that on a Thursday-is-the-new-Friday in Williamsburg, and they weren’t bad, just not really what I was looking for at the time — that being the aforementioned revival — so I won’t be surprised next time around when Eidetic Seeing and I run into each other and I have a deeper appreciation for what they’re doing.
One thing they had going for them, though, was their bassist. Please try to contain your surprise that I dug the bass tone in an underdeveloped heavy psych trio — something that’s definitely never happened before — but quality low end became a theme for the night. Reign of Zaius bassist Davis followed suit, playing through a fretless and being almost solely responsible for the thickness of his band’s sound. Not that something was lacking in the guitar of Brady, just that the band wasn’t geared on the whole to fuzz or showy about their distortion. They played relatively simple, straightforward heavy-type rock, however, called their frontman Viking and had an impressive, somewhat showy, drummer in the younger Brian.
Like Eidetic Seeing, it seemed watching Reign of Zaius that the band was still working out the kinks in their dynamic. There were a couple noticeable flubs, but nothing major, and overall their songs were inoffensive. The room as uncrowded as it was, it wasn’t going to be anyone’s best night, and as I pointed out in the very first sentence of this review, it wasn’t mine either. Nonetheless, cuts from their self-titled EP like “Cravings,” “White Horse” and “Revelation” gave a decent idea of the lack of pretense in their intent, and “Thick Thighs” had its own kind of charm. No shortage of it. Any band that lists Black Sabbath and the 1988 “Rowdy” Roddy Piper classic They Live among their influences is doing something right, and Reign of Zaius clearly were.
My spirits had picked up some by the time The Midnight Ghost Train had their gear set up. Since the last time they came through, the Topeka outfit jettisoned bassist David Kimmell, leaving Moss and drummer Brandon Burghart — who wore a Truckfighters shirt for their set — to search out a replacement. Before they went on, Moss told me they’d only been playing with Alfred Jordan, from Mississippi, for a few weeks, but watching them on stage, they were still easily the tightest band of the three that played, and Jordan‘s presence on stage, his dreadlocks tossed in several directions at once with each headbang, made a fitting complement for the already established dynamic between Moss and Burghart.
Moss introduced the band in his usual throaty affect, saying, “We’re The motherfucking Midnight Ghost Train from motherfucking Kansas,” pausing for a sip of water before adding, “That’s right, Kansas. Yes, we can read.” The Brooklyn crowd got a laugh out of that, and while I can’t imagine what talking like that with the kind of regularity Moss does so must do to your throat — if you’ve never seen them, think of any number of grizzled 85-year-old Delta blues players, then make it fast, and that’s kind of how Moss talks when he’s on stage — it’s clearly had no effect on his energy level over the course of the time he’s been doing it. The Midnight Ghost Train remain one of the most undervalued quality live acts in their genre, and at Public Assembly, they made a solid case for revisiting Buffalo.
The height of the stage at Public Assembly provides a little distance, and watching them closely, it’s pretty easy to discern the common patterning of The Midnight Ghost Train‘s riffing. They rely a lot on upbeat progressions, cycling through a riff, finishing it with a couple hits, then cycling through again, but what makes it exciting to watch live or to listen to on the album is that you don’t at any point know what they’re going to do with it, and they don’t always do the same thing. They are masters of the sudden stop. Burghart will mute his cymbals, Moss and Jordan will cut the strings, and even if it’s just half a second of silence, the raucousness that ensues following is that much stronger for the pause. Top that with Moss‘ hand-in-the-air raving testimonial vocal delivery, and Buffalo tracks like “Henry” and “Foxhole” wind up as exciting to watch as they are to hear.
Still, it was the slower “Tom’s Trip” that was the highlight of their set. Burghart played without a rack tom — his kit just the snare and bass drums and a floor tom, crash, ride and hi-hat — and that got me thinking about the balance for a drummer between stripping things down to force more creative play and oversimplifying. It’s easy for a drummer, provided he or she can afford it, to adorn a kit with extra toms, cowbells, wood blocks, china cymbals and the rest, but Burghart‘s minimal drumset worked to both his interests and those of the songs, and the play from the snare on his left to the floor tom on his right was a big part of what made “Tom’s Trip” so much fun. The song also reaffirmed that as bombastic and vibrant as The Midnight Ghost Train are on any given night, they’re also readily capable of locking in a stoner rock groove and letting it ride where and when they want it to.
All that feeds into the notion of their unpredictability, which is one of their strongest assets. They have a set context for themselves, but within that, you can never be quite sure where they’re headed. Shouts rose up when they finished for one more song, so they encored with “Southern Belle,” Moss rounding out the set by asking how much he should make it hurt, and then they were quickly done. With work in the morning and the drive back to Jersey ahead, I said a quick thanks and goodnight and split out back to my car, not knowing I’d spend the better part of the next hour in Holland Tunnel traffic.
And I won’t lie to you, there was a moment when — stuck in the tunnel after 1AM, having not moved for 10 minutes because of something no one could see or understand, as discordant chorus of car horns and New York-accented shouts rose up all around me — I really thought I was going to die there in that spot. There was a strange sub-harmony to the horns, and their futility — no one even knew what they were honking at — gave the anger driving them a melancholy edge. Sad, hopeless assholes, stuck in a tunnel together. No doubt after 12 hours, the weak among us would’ve been dismembered and eaten; my own flesh stripped off and cured, like bacon, for breakfast around what for the rest of the world would’ve been sunrise. No sunrise for tunnelfolk.
I barely escaped with my hide, and eventually got through to Jersey and back to my humble river valley, the driving rhythms of “Foxhole” still stuck in my head, where they remain. The Midnight Ghost Train were off the next day, and at The Station in Philly the night after (which is Saturday, tonight). All their tour dates domestic and abroad can be found on their website — they put them right out front. If the point hasn’t been made clear, they’re a highly recommended good time, and bound to improve whatever mood you might be in when you first show up.
Extra pics after the jump. Thanks for reading.