Recently I was talking with a friend of mine who could not wrap his head around how anyone could listen to NPR for more than a few minutes. After a fair amount of prodding from others in the group, he was able to admit that it occasionally showcased relevant or otherwise interesting stories; however, its languorous, bordering on comatose, delivery of the material in his mind catapulted any idea of an extended listening session in the realm of the unthinkable. While there are many qualities separating Thursday’s Wooden Shjips show at The Bootleg from listening to talk radio, the further one goes down the rabbit hole with them, the more apparent the similarities become.
For this reason, it’s almost poetic that the lead in to the main event of the night was named Terry Gross, in this instance being the San Francisco based rock outfit, not the eponymous radio host of NPR’s Fresh Air (although, I would’ve happily paid extra to see her shred for a couple bars). Though I’d never heard of them before and pondered over whether or not the bass player was a long lost cousin of mine for their first few songs, they laid down a solid set that was one part Sleep, one part Neu, with dashes dashes of Wolfmother and some classic sludge undertones to add spice to the whole affair. With influences such as these being displayed proudly, it’s clear that this is a band where every member would still being playing even if the venue were a fraction of the size; and for this reason, despite the glitchy vocals in the mix that night, made the subdued power of every chord hit home and made you feel like it was show being played just for you.
While I wish I could say that Wooden Shjips commanded the same authority both when they came onstage and throughout their set, their performance unfortunately became everything that my friend described NPR to me as: dazed, droning, and ultimately sleep-inducing blocks of sound made by people who look like they’d rather be somewhere else. And while I’ve tried in the days since the show to find a thoroughly positive angle through which I can frame their set, I’ve only been able to hone in on two relatively distinct modes of thought which qualify more as apologetics than arguments in the band’s favor.
The first, and likely strongest argument, has to do with the state of mind one is in when they go to a show. While I’ll admit that I was more-or-less sober throughout their entire set, after looking around and seeing that even the older people in the crowd were a bit “out of it” made me recognize that maybe I should have gone with the worse angels of my nature that night and partook in something to elevate the experience as well. After all, even my Lyft driver on the way home said that he’d dropped off some girls at the show earlier who’d made a point of doing mushrooms in his car before walking in. However, that got me to thinking; if music is as universal and subjective as a medium as it’s made out to be, shouldn’t I be able to enjoy the same band as much when I’m listening alone and sober at home as when I’m listening sober and in a group in public?
This brings me to my second possible conclusion, which touches on whether certain music is better experienced privately or at a live concert. While I’ve listened to Wooden Shjips often in the background when reading, doing research, or any number of other tasks at home or at work, perhaps their music in this case is not meant to be experienced live under similar conditions. After all, even the best bands and songs can occasionally become so associated with a certain scenario or set of tasks that it becomes hard to imagine it as anything other than background music once it’s put into a different context.
However as much at these two justifications may explain away my feelings towards Wooden Shjips in this instance, ultimately it comes down to expectations not properly intersecting with reality. Although each member is clearly an accomplished musician technically, the lack of stage presence, mumbled vocals, and the overall lackluster atmosphere in comparison to what I’ve constructed in my mind over hours of private listening made it a difficult show to get through for me and one that I’d advise anyone going to see them in the future to “prepare for” accordingly.
Words by: Robert Cohen
Photos by: Dillon Vaughn