My office had cleared out pretty early, which I suppose was to be expected. And while I scrambled to get enough work done so that I wouldn’t come back from the Thanksgiving holiday already behind — not to mention Friday’s tasks so that others can have the day off and not be waiting on me; how considerate of them to ask if I had time to pound three days of work into one — I took solace in knowing that at very least I’d be missing the better part of traffic on the way to Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom, where Om were headlining with Lungfish frontman Daniel Higgs playing solo to support.
I suppose I did — miss most of the traffic, that is. Wednesday before Thanksgiving is both the biggest travel day and the biggest bar-business day of the year (which should account for all the flashing police car lights I saw on the way home), but I got into the city with minimal drama and only one real alone-in-the-car rant about how much I hate driving in New York, hate the people, too many people, fuck this, fuck that, and so on. Yelling at nothing is hardly the proper headspace for embracing Om‘s intimate sense of tonally warm ritual, but such are the flaws of human experience. In a perfect world, they’d play in temples in remote areas and going to see them would be a pilgrimage.
Come to think of it, that’s kind of what it was like seeing them at Roadburn earlier this year. In any case, the parking gods were kind to me and I got a space right across the street from Bowery Ballroom. I wasn’t late, but I wasn’t early either, and I knew I wanted to be up front for Daniel Higgs, though I didn’t even really know why yet. He was on stage when I walked up the stairs and into the venue proper, his set not started yet, but there all the same, sitting in his chair, plucking strings on his banjo. At one point, he pointed a thumb at the sound guy — who I recognized from when he used to work at the old Ace of Clubs when that was open; good for him moving up in the world or at least venue size — and said something about how the union made him stick to a strict start time.
That probably should’ve been a hint as to Higgs‘ level of interaction with the audience, but I didn’t really know what to expect going into his set. Something of a legend in the Dischord Records sense of the word within the D.C post-hardcore set, Lungfish released their first album in seven years in this year’s A.C.R. 1999, and Higgs‘ solo work has been running concurrent since 1998 at a fairly prolific clip. With a booming mostly-white beard and facial expressions to match his vocal manipulations that reminded me at points of “Dixie” Dave Collins from Weedeater, he quickly turned his banjo into more than its folksy reputation.
He touched on bluegrass groove, sure enough, and there may yet exist an alternate reality wherein what he was playing would qualify as “folk” in the traditional sense of being a music of the people — I’d like to see the place where that’s so, and I mean that with no condescension whatsoever — but with a variety of fingering techniques and runs through Eastern-sounding scales and sitar-esque mysticisms,Higgsdid more with a banjo in about 10 minutes than I’ve ever seen anyone do in my life. Periodic verses appeared, but he wasn’t running through songs in a setlist — the effect was more fluid than that, his approach more open. At one point, still playing his banjo as he was for all but the briefest of moments throughout, he said, “There are more verses to that song. I’m still learning them,” and then asked someone in the crowd what time it was and was much relieved to know how much time he had left.
It was entertaining to watch someone so clearly endeavored in artistry also be jubilant in his work. I feel like there’s an implication that if you’re doing what you love, you’re supposed to be somberly contemplative about it at all times, but Higgs was clearly enjoying himself and it stands to reason why. In his long run of verses, one in particular was a standout that went something close to, “Half-vulcan is enough to mind-meld/But not enough to ignore the pain/Of the mind control technologies that keep us near insane.” Higgs must have known it too, because he repeated it a second time — “For emphasis,” as he put it. My own affinity for the original Star Trek aside, his Vulcan salute was much appreciated. He wished that we all would live long and prosper and remember “this time” that every day should be Thanksgiving, talked about the hurricane for a bit but surmised we were all okay, since we were there.
Perhaps that was his only misstep, but how could he know how sick everyone is of talking about the storm? Higgs spoke about a Mosque under construction they passed on their way through Rhode Island that had a billboard in front of it with “100 million eggs” printed on it and then left the crowd to ponder the meaning, and all the while tapped his feet and played his banjo with an easy-seeming, natural but well-developed virtuosity that was at points as hypnotic to watch as it was to hear. Once or twice, he looked in a small notebook to refresh himself of other verses and kept a friendly vibe going straight through until he was done, peppering in bits of toyed-with national anthem, “The rockets’ red glare,” “Bombs bursting in air,” and so forth while working around the original notes of the song as casually as one might throw a handful of rocks into a river.
Their equipment was already set up and looked ready to roll, so when Higgs finished, it wasn’t an especially long break before Om came out on stage, one at a time, first Robert A. A. Lowe, who sat in front of his draped table in front of an assortment of synths, samplers, noisemakers and effects, a guitar off to his right and a couple tambourines on the floor to his left — like the secret ingredient, he was, even unto his own gear — then drummer Emil Amos, who looked on edge only until he took his place behind his drums and then suddenly the world righted itself, and finally Al Cisneros, whose shamanistic presence is furthered all the more by his on-stage humility, quiet speaking voice and entranced stage method. He grooves to Om playing it the way the notes themselves flow up, down, to the side.
His tone was clean for most of the set, and no matter what Cisneros does, he’s always going to be a focal point in the band — Sleep‘s legacy alone ensures that, never mind the quiet intensity he brings to Om, his cross-dogma lyrics, unique vocal style and cadence or the simple fact that he’s the only one of the three standing — but as they opened with “Sinai,” it was immediate how different a band Om has become since they first started out in the middle of the last decade. Lowe is obviously a factor. His is the first guitar that’s been heard on an Om record, and aside from rocking a tambourine like no one I’ve ever seen, the textures of synth and even vocals be brings have enriched the band’s sound exponentially. But Amos isn’t to be forgotten in this mix either.
Om‘s set, which was comprised entirely of material from their last three albums — 2007′s Pilgrimage, 2009′s God is Good (review here) and this year’s Advaitic Songs (review here) — was good enough that on my way out of the city, I took the newest record out of my trusty CD wallet in some vain attempt to continue the experience, and what I noted right away (and the sad part about this is it’s true, this is actually how I think when I listen to music) was that Amos, who seemed far back and distant on the album, was so much more an active part of the process on stage. His drumming is more than just a featured component, and particularly as he and Cisneros — and now Lowe as well — have been playing together over the course of two full-lengths, he’s become integral to Om‘s sound, his highly stylized and intricate play as responsible for carrying across the sense of journey in “Meditation is the Practice of Death” as Cisneros‘ basslines.
From there, Om unfolded a gorgeous string of intricate melodies, spiritually weighted grooves and the loud quietness that has come to typify what they do. A lack of cello made some of the arrangements different than on the album, but Lowe is a master at filling those spaces, such that “Cremation Ghat I” and “Cremation Ghat II” from God is Good could hardly be called lacking. As I’d been so bummed out on the crowd my last time at Bowery Ballroom, when Graveyard played, I was glad to note the audience for Om was decidedly less douche-tastic. You’re always going to get a few — Manhattan is nothing if not a playground for assholes of all shapes, sizes and levels of self-importance — but I don’t know if it was the holiday spirit, Om‘s steady vibing or my own choice to stay sober for the night not wanting to pull a dooey on a holiday weekend, but things seemed much more manageable in general. Maybe Om just chilled me the fuck out. Much needed, much appreciated.
A specifically transcendent moment was when Cisneros clicked into his distorted tone for “State of Non-Return” from Advaitic Songs, Amos meeting him with a precise whimsy in his intricate fills and Lowe making sure the atmosphere stayed consistent while also adding guitar to further the crunch. The heavier stretch and relatively straightforward material was an effective setup for the comparatively minimal “Gebel Berkal” — the 2008 single which served as Amos‘ introduction point to the band — and an ultra-quiet rearrangement of Pilgrimage highlight “Bhima’s Theme” that found Cisneros quietly playing his bass and trading off vocals with Lowe, reciting the verse lines like incantations while Lowe answered back with spaces of operatic falsetto made ambient through echoing effects.
I was reminded a bit of Higgs, who had done some similar vocal experimenting — inviting the crowd to partake as well, of course — but the affect with Lowe in Om was entirely different. Amos left the stage for a time to give Lowe and Cisneros the space to explore, and they did. The feeling was open and otherworldly and the room, which had not exactly been lacking in this regard the whole show, once more began to sting my nostrils with sweet-smelling smoke. “Bhima’s Theme” gradually emerged, slow but recognizable, when Amos returned, and from my place in back by the bar, I watched as they brought the song up to maximum volume and then brought it back down again carefully, like putting down an artifact, and thus ended their set, Lowe‘s ethereal vocalizing being the last element to go. Cisneros took a quick bow and before one even had time to wonder if an encore was coming, the house lights were brought up and Motörhead was once more piped through the P.A., as though to hurry everyone out of the place.
Within about three minutes, I was back at my car, and with but the slightest hiccup of traffic leading into the Holland Tunnel, on my way home without incident. The busiest travel day of the year was over, I guess. Fine by me. I made it back to my humble river valley shortly after midnight — again, listening to Advaitic Songs en route — and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to replace the dinner I’d missed on account of the by-now-forgotten workday, thankful for the fact that there were still two slices of bread left to make such a thing possible. Maybe Higgs had the right of it.
Extra pics after the jump.