This San Francisco garage band have been a band in the making since 1997, at the nearly twenty year mark they are moving from cult following to essential band. They are playing entirely by their own rules, no pretence, no political messages or life lessons to sell, they are a band who know how to have a good time.
Joining them as supporting acts are ultra hip French garage rockers Magnetix. A male and female two piece band who have had to bear a great deal of comparison to an early White Stripes, not without good reason. Besides the obvious band configuration, the musical styles are also that of raw garage rock, but this band have tightened their sound to a tense percussion, tightening their sound and refining it beyond that of a fledgling group. Standout songs like Mort Clinique are sung in both French and English (for maximum confusion) and feature heavy, cleverly used distortion and a catchy chorus. Expect more from them in the future and don’t be surprised if your GCSE French expands to include some lyrics.
This is a generous line-up for fans featuring the best of current garage rock. The second support act are fellow Americans The Blind Shake. Here is a band on the cusp of great things. They are already notorious for producing a huge sound from such a sparse band. They serve up a powerhouse of dark surf rhythms underpinned by drummer ‘Dave’ who stands centre stage to hammer out the beats with his whole body. These guys bring a new definition to the term ‘warm up act’ as the crowd respond to their self-described, ‘Extraterrestrial Backyard Surf Party’ music. They raise the energy with tracks like I’m Not an Animal. Guitarist, Baritone guitarist and vocal duo, ‘Jim’ and ‘Mike’ belt out lyrics with matched precision and fury.
The music is primal and a core of the pit crowd start to jump and stomp in time, in turn the band are further roused by the kinetic acceleration, as they speed through modern punk number Old Lake. Guitarist ‘Jim’ to pitch his guitar into the air mid song with such force that it sailed at least six foot over head, descending at speed he catches it just in time to lay down a heavy shred. For such a minimalist, pared down band, including their uniformly shaved heads, dark clothing and monochrome lighting, they don’t skip on showmanship.
Sufficiently warmed up, left to their own devices before the main event the crowd are chatty. They are a comfortable mix of old and young indie fans, original and ‘nu’ punks, mostly a laid back friendly mish-mash of London music fans who were lucky or well informed enough to know this is where they needed to be.
Thee Oh Sees arrive on stage ahead of their set with the stage crew to help set up their own instruments, efficiently pulling up microphone stands sound checking volume levels and tweaking the markers so they could fit two basic drum kits front and centre. Once ready, vocalist and core band member John Dwyer chats to the audience, the pre-set distortion and echo on his microphone make him virtually inaudible when he talks. Not understood, he switches to waving hello with a calm and gentle charm before launching violently into a set of music with ultra high energy which almost blows the crowd backwards. Thank goodness everyone had a chance to stretch and raise their heart rates earlier, it would be impossible to be in attendance at The Coronet on this night and not be overcome by the urge to participate.
Dwyer oscillates between posturing like a dandy squealing and screaming whilst he wriggles his body in sensual little dances around his high held guitar, and strumming casually nodding his head from side to side and jousting his whole guitar towards the band. As the band thunders out Dead Man’s Gun, a killer track from 2016’s album A Weird Exists, his voice contrasts the rich, full throttle rock with a soft melodic timbre. Occasionally bursting forth with a scream or a yelping guitar twang heavy with distortion, more commonly heard on early 60’s garage or rockabilly, but fast becoming a signature embellishment in Thee Oh Sees repertoire.
The team of drummers, Ryan Moutinho and Dan Rincon add flourishes to their playing like a high school marching band, sweeping their drumsticks like batons to mark time. Their measured sweeps and hits are a faultless pulse which activates the band, and in turn the audience, until everyone is dancing with reckless abandon in a shared state of wild joy.
Between songs Dwyer enquires, “Is it loud enough?” as if he is daring the audience to sign over their remaining hearing to irreparable damage and loss. By now, Thee Oh Sees own this audience and are met with an enthusiastic, “NO!” Dwyer responds with a provocative raised eyebrow and a nod to the sound mixer. In the words of Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park, “Hold on to your butts”…
The wicked reverberating rock of older song, the dreamy sweet melodic Toe Cutter – Thumb Buster sent the audience into a frenzy of motion and Dwyer into a fit of dancing which is reminiscent of a child shaking a troll doll, hair flying in time to an internal psychotic rock. Perhaps he is the victim of some very effective voodoo? Continuing to hold the audience through hard and heavy tracks like The Dream, the drummers start over arming the their sticks with full force like Japanese Kodo drummers, which make the beats resonate through your guts.
Towelling off between songs it becomes clear that the band require a super human level of stamina to deliver a show with level of intense energy. With barely a moment of pause he is sliding out a scale on his guitar as he licks the contours from end to neck and tears through another immersive track, barking out lyrics this time and flicking a double bird gesture in full expression. As jewel tones fill the stage there comes a slinky melody on Moog, the drummers slow, sweeping their sticks in an hypnotic trance over their symbols. This band have given themselves a lot of room to play, as the pace quickens the drummers execute the percussion with incredible speed and tightness, crashing through songs, as bass player Tim Hellman bubbles fat tones over the surface.
Not a beat is missed, even as a lost drumstick is replaced from a pocket without a flicker of hesitation. Like wind up toys the drummers beat out their key speeding into a disco beat, fleetingly before racing into a jazz high hat. The audience hooked on the building tension and the excitement of unpredictable music, clapping time and dancing without exhaustion as the song rounds off into a rowdy punk crescendo sending everyone out of their minds. A line of venue security staff have been deployed to hand out water, a Herculean black bouncer stands head and shoulders above the rest, even he is dancing like an itch is being satisfyingly scratched, shimmying and grooving from side to side.
After a seamless musical odyssey which included tripping cool blues riffs and cascades of lights that cycled through the spectrum of colours matching every musical style, the audience are visibly happy and endorphin fuelled grinning lunatics. In a touch of genuine class Thee Oh Sees break with the traditional encore ritual and simply announce, “There will be two more songs”, the Sonics inspired Tunnel Time and another racy psychobilly track where they invited an overwhelmed kid to join them on stage to play tambourine. As the gig wraps up, that kid standing wide eyed and grinning on stage seems a perfectly fitting representative for the whole audience.
Run, Skip, Hop, don’t walk to see the Thee Oh Sees. Go to see them for yourself, wear your roughest clothes and your bring toughest troubles because your body and your soul will be exercised and exorcised.
Thee Oh Sees European Tour 2016 continues through September with dates in France, Portugal and Spain before heading south of the US border to Mexico. Some records are available at CastleFace
Live review by Sarah Sievers and photography by Belle Piec