Guantanamo Baywatch at the Catalyst Club

Hey, getting behind in my music blogging. Been very busy with work and all kinda other shit. I saw Guantanamo Baywatch about two weeks ago in the Atrium at the Catalyst Club. I have been aware of Guantanamo Baywatch for a year or so, but never had the chance to see them live. Since they were coming to my local joint, and the tickets were $12 at the door, I thought I should do my part to support the arts. It was definitely well worth my while.

Guantanamo Baywatch at the Catalyst
Guantanamo Baywatch at the Catalyst

Having missed openers Speck, I asked some random club patron how the first band was, and his answer was “not a fan!” They had one song, he said, where the main lyric was “society’s fucked!” over and over. As it turned out, random club dude was actually a member of Psychic Astro Club, the second band. “I think the second band will put on a really good show” he said with a wink.

Psychic astro club was a 5-piece band with two guitar players, keyboard, bass and drums. Two of the members had sort of metallic makeup or face paint, adding a kind of 60s vibe. Overall I thought their set was pretty strong. They opened with an instrumental number that reminded me of early Stereolab. I found the drummer to be quite mesmerizing to watch. He had those octopus arms that moved with great fluidity, creating great syncopated rhythms. Their sound is very psychedelic and they lay down some excellent grooves. I appreciated the fact that at least three band members could sing, and they had proper harmonies which is always a plus. I scribbled “The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion” in my notebook, so I guess they were giving me an early Dead vibe. Overall a very enjoyable set.

I’ve only been to the Atrium a couple times. Especially on a weeknight, it has the somewhat awkward feel of a high school dance. There’s the strange little drinking corral, formed with orange webbing and pylons around the bar area, which was packed with people, and then the no-drink zone which is much larger, with scattered clumps of people. I was glad that by the time Guantanamo Baywatch took the stage the house was pretty full.

Guantanamo Baywatch is a Portland, Oregon-based band composed of core members Jason Powell on vocals and guitar, Chevelle Wiseman on bass, and Christopher Scott on drums. Rounding out their sound on guitar and vocals is Jordan Owen. They play high-energy, punked out surf music which is guaranteed to get your toe tapping, if not lindy hopping frenetically as people were by the end of the set. Some of the notes I scribbled – “Like surf music on mescaline,” “They are so fun to watch!” and “They play with conviction! 110% every song!” So yeah, a great party band. Although Powell is a kook with a cartoon-y voice and Cousin It hair covering his face half the time, he is a true virtuoso on guitar. Wiseman is a badass bass player with rockabilly looks, and Scott is also a wild man, in addition to being a tasteful drummer. Scott also does vocal duties, with some of his numbers consisting of mostly falsetto yawps and yips. I’m sorry, Jordan (Owen), but somebody has to be the straight man. But Owen definitely played an important part filling out the band’s sound.

I’ll leave it there, but it was definitely worth staying up a little late on a work night to check them out.

Power Convergence – EMA, The Blow, Ah Mer Ah Su

All the performers on this tour, billed boldly as The Power Convergence, are pushing the boundaries. Electronic noise rock artist EMA was co-headlining with The Blow, a political feminist electronic pop duo from Brooklyn. At each date on the tour, local artists charting new territory were invited (by EMA, it seems) to fill out the bill.

EMA at the Rickshaw Stop
EMA at the Rickshaw Stop

At the Rickshaw Stop last Monday, Ah Mer Ah Su (Star Amerasu) opened the festivities. Star had great energy. As a black trans woman, she clearly knows what it means to be an outsider. Her energy was bubbly and cute, but at the same time challenged us to confront issues like white privilege in songs like Meg Ryan. Accompanying herself with a small electronic toolkit, recorded beats and loops generated on the spot, Ah Mer Ah Su delivered a moving, uplifting, and bittersweet performance.

I had been looking forward to seeing EMA perform for a long time. I heard about EMA in 2014, and bought The Future’s Void, her brilliant second album. I think I just missed that tour, and this was her first proper Bay Area performance in several years. It was a very gritty, intimate and visceral set. Joining EMA for this tour were Susan Lucia on drums, and Leif Shackelford on violin, synthesizer and bass. Leif’s middle finger on his left hand was in a splint, the result of an accident right before start of the tour. He did just fine with the remaining fingers.

EMA is a combination of many contradictory things. Raised in middle America, yet she has the instincts of a futurist. Her songs about the surveillance state in The Future’s Void were released months before Ed Snowden became a public figure. The song Aryan Nation on this year’s Exile in the Outer Ring (written about 2 years ago) seems all too relevant in our current American dystopia. As a performer, EMA is iconic and shamanic, but at the same time down-to-earth and self-effacing.

For a very small club, they managed to do some dramatic lighting for EMA. Smoke poured out from behind the stage, the drummer and bass player took their places, and then EMA took the stage, wearing a dark jacket, hood pulled up, over what turned out to be baggy white gym shorts. She opened with Where the Darkness Began, which is really a spoken word piece where she breaks down her theory of “The Outer Ring”, the ring of low-cost housing, strip malls, and generic apartments that exists in between the cities, now too expensive for creatives, and the suburbs, which are sterile and lack diversity. The Outer Ring is an in-between place, where freedom and creativity are possible precisely because they are random, decaying, yet diverse and full of potential…

Here is the set list I captured which should be complete. I was not familiar with the one Gowns song that she closed with.

Set List
Where the Darkness Began
I Wanna Destroy
Butterfly Knife
Receive Love
Blood and Chalk
33 Nihilistic and Female
Fire Water LSD
[unknown gowns song]

After their set, EMA met fans at the merch table. I bought the new album Exile in the Outer Ring on vinyl, and also the zine, both of which she signed. I blabbered something about what a big fan I am. And she consented to take a picture with me, so I felt like I experienced my encounter with this luminary performer to the fullest.

Alex and I were feeling a bit noncommittal about the Blow, an electronic feminist pop art duo from Brooklyn. I didn’t know much about them, besides watching a few videos on Youtube. We hung out in the balcony for a while, and watched the first few songs from there. But before long I was drawn to get close to the performers, so we went down to the floor.

The Blow at the Rickshaw Stop
The Blow at the Rickshaw Stop

The Blow is Khaela Maricich on vocals and Melissa Dyne on synthesizers. In hindsight – and I have been thinking about this show a lot – The Blow were (probably) performing their latest album, Brand New Abyss. But seeing this performance from the initiate’s perspective, it felt like one integrated piece. Khaela would be introducing a song, or telling a story, while Melissa was generating beats and drones on her rig, but then it became clear that this was now a “number”, which would then merge as seamlessly into the next number until their performance came to an end.

Here are some of the themes I picked out of the performance. The Abyss – that void that opens up when the performer stops singing, and an audience member is compelled to yell out “we love you!” or some other inanity. Beauty and power. Capitalism (monetize this). Making art in a condo in Georgia. In general, the struggle to make unique, and let’s be honest not very commercial music, in this time of homogenized media and economic and moral free-fall.

This was certainly one of the most innovative and challenging performances I have seen in a long time. I felt that The Blow were in peak form. Khaela’s ability to improvise, to set the mood and take the audience somewhere unexpected. The subtle, fluid interactions with Melissa’s electronic accompaniment. I felt truly blessed to be in the audience that night.

EMA at the Rickshaw Stop
EMA at the Rickshaw Stop
EMA at the Rickshaw Stop
EMA at the Rickshaw Stop
EMA Plays the Synthesizer
EMA at the Rickshaw Stop
EMA with the author
EMA Took a Picture With Me