My intent was to catch Columbus, Ohio, psych rockers EYE when they hit Brooklyn the night before, but a yes-that-late workday prevented me from making it to the show in time. As such, there was a tinge of stubbornness that came with the decision to head down to Philly on Friday night and see EYE at Johnny Brenda‘s on a bill that also included opener Randall of Nazareth and local heroes Serpent Throne as headliners. Even if I wasn’t doing it partly out of frustration, that’s a pretty killer lineup and I figured that if I’m going to refuse to miss EYE rolling through, that’s the show to refuse to miss.
Everything was fine until, just as I was getting on I-95 and approaching downtown Philly, the Google Maps app on my phone shit the bed. I wound up finding Frankford Ave., but going the wrong way down it — after going the right way and then turning around to be wrong; a very me way of getting lost — and having no idea what the hell I was doing. I called The Patient Mrs. and wound up calling out street names as I passed by them until she could figure out where I was and get me turned back around the right way. Which was the way I’d gone initially. Ugh.
Even with getting all turned around, it was early when I got to Johnny Brenda’s. Early enough so that the upstairs room above the bar/restaurant that serves as the venue proper wasn’t open yet. The woman at the door looked at me, asked me if I was in a band, and when I said no, sent me on my way. I wasn’t drinking, had nowhere to be, so I sat down at a table, took out a notebook and ordered a caesar salad to help pass the time. It arrived some moments later a whole wedge of iceberg lettuce resting on a generous dollop of dressing, topped with a grilled breast of chicken — all the ingredients of a caesar salad waiting to be chopped up and turned into one. I was happy to kill another two or three minutes obliging my dinner its construction.
These are the hazards of going to shows alone, I thought to myself as I made my way up to the balcony to do some more writing. Downstairs the DJ was just beginning to spin heavy ’70s rock — familiarities from Blue Cheer and early Pentagram met with modern derivatives from Graveyard and Kadavar — and there were still about 40 minutes to pass before Randall of Nazareth took the stage. They went slow. I wrote, screwed around on the internet, loaded this site to make sure the radio stream was still up, then did it again, looked over to the bar, waited. Waited. Finally, tired of being in that spot at that table on the balcony, I went downstairs and waited there, stood in the back for a while went through the same routine all over.
It’s not that the show was late, I was just early. Randall of Nazareth – AKA guitarist/vocalist Randall Huth of underrated PA pastoralists Pearls and Brass — went on at about 9:20PM, maybe a couple minutes after, but that was hardly off the scheduled start time, I’m just awkward. Huth put out an album under the Randall of Nazareth moniker on Drag City in 2007, and though I was always curious as to what it might sound like, it eluded me. I’d hoped for a copy at the merch table, or better, something newer, an independently released CDR or something like that, but no dice.
Still, Huth brought to his acoustic solo set much the same sense of town fair twang he brings to the sepia blues-worship of Pearls and Brass — it was mostly the context was different. He had two acoustics with him and his vocals were suited to the material, soft and sometimes barely there and never really hitting more than a bluesman’s garble. Perhaps an affectation, but one well used, in any case, and his presence on stage matched. Cutting a humble figure in the spotlight while EYE‘s not-inconsiderable Moog setup loomed in the darkness just a few feet adjacent, Huth played his songs banjo-fast — adding impressive neo-folk fingerpicked noodling to his semi-countrified moodiness on the acoustic guitar — but gave off no perceptible sense of anxiousness. As he turned after his first or second song, he listened to the strings and said, “This is gonna be terrible.” It wasn’t.
As will happen to the acoustic opener at the rock show, a swell of conversational volume gradually took hold the longer he played. In addition to his other songs, he did two instrumentals, one which closed the set, and one cover, and then was gone as quick as he’d gotten started once he took the stage. EYE arrived shortly thereafter and started into their first song I think before anyone actually realized they were beginning with a jam that sort of gradually took shape as a classic progressive space rocking thrust, very much indebted to Hawkwind but more visceral necessarily than their 2011 full-length, Center of the Sun (review here) — re-released by Kemado earlier this year — might have you believe. The Moog, handled by Adam Smith, played a major role in the band’s sound, and Smith added his vocals to those of drummer Brandon Smith – it was reportedly his birthday — and guitarist Matt Auxier for three-part post-lysergic ritual paeans to the cosmos. They were an easy band to dig.
Almost immediately, I was glad to have made the trip. Bassist Matt Bailey locked into the groove with Brandon, which allowed Matt to explore a solar system of effects while Adam tore into a raging solo or two of his own. Parts of songs I recognized from Center of the Sun, but some of the material seemed to be new as well, or at least more loosely constructed for a live setting, the band using the space afforded them by the Moog to wander where and when they willed. Their repetitions proved almost hypnotic, but were very definitely headed in that direction, and if 2013 is to bring new recordings from EYE, they’ll be welcome by me. They had space rock down, and the crowd that had been growing at a steady clip since the show started only agreed more as time went on.
When it was Serpent Throne‘s time to take the stage, I realized just how much of the room was their audience. They conquered Johnny Brenda’s before playing a single note as only the best of local noteworthies can, inspiring a particular devotion for their instrumental sonic niche somewhere ’70s motor groove, doomly stomp, classic dual guitar metal and devil-loving stoner rock. The brotherly duo of guitarist Demian Fenton and drummer Sean-Paul Fenton dominated the room, but neither bassist Colin Smith or by-no-means-second guitarist Don Argott gave any ground of their own real estate — and it was theirs but the time they actually started playing. The place lit up for “Rock Formation” from 2009’s The Battle of Old Crow and continued the enthusiasm for cuts like “Controlled by Lunar Forces” or the title-track from 2010’s White Summer – Black Winter, which Demian preceded with a warning that, “it was a long one.”
He had a mic, despite the band’s being instrumental-only, and the between-song banter showed his familiarity with the room and the people in it. New cut “Foxtrot” from a forthcoming release reportedly titled Brother Lucifer was advanced with a dedication to “any Vietnam vets in the room,” which drew a couple laughs, and afterwards the guitarist apologized to Vietnam vets everywhere before Serpent Throne launched into “Wheels of Satan” from their 2007 debut, Ride Satan Ride, the classic biker riffing of which earned the night’s most vehement response. By then, I was sitting at the bar — again, not drinking — but watching from there I could find no argument against what they had on offer nor with “yes” vote the rifferendum gleaned. Johnny Brenda’s had packed out pretty well and when Serpent Throne were done, the staff of the place came through and said they were towing cars outside, which may or may not have been a load, but having already gotten lost once, I wasn’t about to risk having to look for a city tow yard. I cut out on the quick like I do.
Still without GPS, the ride back was pulled off successfully by memory, and the act of mental engagement was enough to keep me awake, as if the day’s news reports weren’t enough. Nothing makes your shit feel trivial faster than dead kids, and rightly so. I was glad for the opportunity to get out of my head for a little while, and I don’t think I was the only one.
Extra pics after the jump. Thanks for reading.