Ace of Cups, Columbus, Ohio – November 14, 2017
This never happens.
Every city has its big-ticket and mid-sized concert venues, and they seem fairly immune to the ravages of either recession or technology-aided obsolescence. The artists that play there have a level of prominence that sells itself, and it’s a good thing I despise a majority of them, since I’m generally loath to contribute any more money to the 1% than I have to. Thank heavens then for the musical proletariat – those touring bands eeking out a living, hand to mouth and a mile at a time, but inarguably living their dream. At a time when it feels like DIY publications and beloved businesses at the local level are folding at an alarming rate, I also hold particular affection, and not a little bit of awe, for the boutique music space, the small downtown club that embraces and enables a potpourri of these varied and varying artists, whether independent, underground, or otherwise obscure. My cousin, who taught me an overwhelming lot about worthwhile music growing up, owns and operates just such a humble gathering place – The Pilot Light – in the Old City section of Knoxville, Tennessee. Low fidelity but high integrity, it’s become an institution over the past couple decades, despite my patent unfamiliarity with approximately 97.5% of all artists that have played there at the moment they played. It used to take a lot to stump me when it came to music, back before the ubiquity of the internet age. Now all it takes is an updated performance calendar.
Nashville, Tennessee’s All Them Witches specializes in a relaxed, unassuming, yet still surprisingly potent form of, I guess, desert rock that lives at the intersection of stoner metal swing and jam band exploration. I did not know this, or, indeed, a single thing about them (apart from the cool name), until the morning of the day before I spontaneously saw them in concert at Columbus, Ohio’s Ace of Cups. Though a bit less homey and far less venerable than the Pilot Light, the slightly larger downtown-adjacent hole-in-the-wall AoC does equivalent work, and its homemade handbills touting two weeks of upcoming shows at a time tend to confound me with similar facility. The concept of having to advertise dozens upon dozens of largely anonymous artists every year is, to me, enough to gift-wrap and deliver a cerebral hemorrhage. AoC addresses this issue head-on by counting on its potential audience to be as curious as it is eclectic, harnessing the power of social media* to repeatedly spread the good word. Instead of posting links to a single song, however, AoC tempted me with a full-album recording of the band’s latest, this year’s Sleeping Through the War. By the end of the first listen, I knew enough to know I’d probably benefit from a second; by the end of the follow-up, I was squarely on the fence about the show, though trending “yea”. Halfway through a third listen I wouldn’t quite finish, I paused just long enough to buy my ticket online.
*Just over 12,000 people follow the club’s Facebook feed, which is a pretty impressive pool of well-wishers from which to draw for an establishment with a physical capacity that looks like it would buckle and spill out onto the back patio well before 500. I’m trying to think of the last AoC show I witnessed that wasn’t an eventual sellout and coming up with thin air. Maybe the Toxic Holocaust/Lord Dying/Infernal Death extravaganza I reviewed last year, though, in order to make time for weekly karaoke, that show was very oddly timed, practically a Sunday matinee.
So, as I was saying, this (almost) never happens. Less than 36 hours after hearing my first note of their music, I was down front and off-center for an All Them Witches show. I strolled into Ace of Cups around 8:30, ready for most anything, and encountered the familiar crush of humanity that assumes the shape of the small, open-floor club – flanked (or, perhaps, sandwiched) on the northeast and southwest by bar and stage, respectively – the way liquid does its Tupperware container, and extends to mere feet away from the front door. For folks who wish to partake of AoC’s sneaky impressive alcohol selection, navigating to the bar is a machete-free trek through a humid, sub-tropical thicket of people doing their utmost to look disinterested, then a plodding return to the already compromised original vantage point that was almost certainly seized via bloodless coup during your absence. I decided in favor of the path of least resistance, foregoing refreshment and attempting to melt into the crowd just inside the door and nearest the stage. Ace of Cups is a minimalist performance space in every sense of the word. With little enough room available for overflow storage, supporting bands set their gear up right in front of the headliner’s, put their collective head down, and plow forward. Opener King Buffalo seemed well chosen and complimentary caveman groove for the occasion, though I only got to hear their final three songs.
As befitted the no-nonsense venue, the gangly southern quartet assumed the stage with the diametric opposite of fanfare, plugging in, tuning briefly, and then lifting off like a surprisingly potent procession of backyard fireworks. I had only passing familiarity with the band’s newest offering, the winning swamplander Sleeping Through the War – I didn’t encounter a song I knew until the ebullient “Alabaster”, about five tracks in – but refused to let that deter my enjoyment as All Them Witches stretched its legs. I found myself immediately taken with the interplay between Ben McLeod’s tasteful guitar licks and the chameleonic, wide canvas organ of Allan Van Cleave, which displays an uncanny ability to approximate whatever flavor might best enhance the stew currently brewing, some of which I wouldn’t have thought possible or even probable from what appeared to be some seriously vintage keys. Overall, ATW’s music manifests as much as an elusive vibe as it does a definable sound, but were I to (foolishly) attempt to quantify it, Black Sabbath meets Grateful Dead might make a reasonable, however reductive, descriptor for both. The first handful of songs struck me sideways, bringing to mind a milder, more textural Clutch. Though I’ll be flying blind**, I already foresee further excursions into ATW’s back catalogue – their albums are available to sample via Bandcamp and Youtube – and personally can’t wait to uncover the one that contains the set’s opener, a raucous call and response earth-shaker that emulates Zeppelin’s classic “Black Dog” without ever explicitly quoting it.
**The usually trusty concert database setlist.fm finally let me down when the time came to fill in this show’s many blanks, though, given that I’ve already admitted I’m not an O.G. All Them Witches fan, the journalistic facade that comes along with being able to pepper a review with obscure song titles is already nigh worthless. I’ll have to impress you with honesty instead!
All Them Witches has only grown in my estimation in the days since I first grooved and fidgeted to their enigmatic sinfonia amongst the musky throng. Repeated listens to Sleeping Through the War – enough to where it still wove a spell while finally making logical sense front-to-back – made sure of that. The temptation becomes to review the band as I’ve come to know it rather than the one I was basically introduced to at Ace of Cups, but that would be slightly disingenuous. The truth of my unfettered reaction is far less sexy and mysterious. What you see with All Them Witches live is almost exactly what you get, and what I noted was an understated, technically hyper-competent outfit with negligible visible chemistry and a photo negative’s worth of stage presence. If it could be said that a performance left its viewer simultaneously impressed but underwhelmed, that would probably accurately describe my disposition. That isn’t meant as a slight, by the way. All Them Witches doesn’t play overwhelming music, as I think they would be first to agree. You’d think that after a couple decades of a metal fan’s*** outsized concert expectations dashing against the rocks of more objectively genteel genres and practitioners I might finally learn my lesson, but when a band commits the cardinal sin of self-assuredly settling into its lane rather than lashing out at their confines or pushing hard toward unsafe speeds, my mind sometimes still has a troubling tendency to drift.
***Though hardly a metal band, All Them Witches does attract its share of metal fans without ever seeming to explicitly cater to them. This is both a good look on its part and a wise strategy. I chose sartorial agnosticism out of deference to all the hipsters in the house, but I did happily notice shirts from Slayer, Dimmu Borgir, and Lamb of God proudly standing out amidst the otherwise unrelenting earth tones.
In my defense, I wasn’t the only person who seemed pleasantly bemused by the whole thing. Having seen my share of extreme metal shows at Ace of Cups, I’m used to the floor immediately adjacent to the stage looking like a Halloween cauldron at full boil. Instead, the crowd fit a different sort of generalized profile – not rapt but attentive, not ecstatic but engaged, a sea of mostly nodding heads tangentially attached to cups and cans of beer held a respectful distance away from interpersonal contact despite the cramped quarters. Excluding a cadre of six young mega-fans incongruously flailing and group headbanging like they were the eye of an Oceano mosh pit instead of front and center for a stealth taping of “Columbus City Limits”, the audience both gave as good as it got and appeared to have a fine time doing so. I’ll practically guarantee you haven’t heard such low key stage banter from an ostensible rock band before.
“This is a song about life. We hope you like it.”
“This is a song about death. We hope you like it.”
“Wait…what the %^&* is burning?”
I’d noticed briefly the smell of some strange combustion – what turned out to be an overheated monitor – cutting through the pervasive mixture of sweat and bourbon barrels. After a barnstorming start and unfolding musical story that, lighter but still dusty and sinister, dovetailed off its example – up to and including the aforementioned “Alabaster” – the show had begun to meander a touch as All Them Witches’ jammier tendencies overtook its solid rock instincts. It seems strange that a pregnant pause should’ve been sufficient to get the enterprise back on track, but, disaster averted, the room’s collective pulse quickened again soon after. Apparently, the band has ample experience dealing with domestic incidents, as singer Charles Michael Parks quipped, “It wouldn’t be an All Them Witches show without something screwing up and wrecking the whole damned thing.” I have a little experience with not-quite-smoking amplifiers in my past – my experience is that you just let the equipment breathe for a minute or ten before pressing on – and, in the end, found myself won over conclusively by a prevailing mental picture, of ATW practicing this very music in some trailer and/or cellar somewhere, congregating in a cluttered room bedecked with gray wood paneling, much like my own Tennessee rock band(s) did during their formative years. How closely this completely idealized non-memory hews to reality is beside the point, and, as the band dug into the wonderfully indelicate set-closing/album-opening medicine ball “Bulls”, I was finally having far too good a time to care. I couldn’t even be properly annoyed by the joyous gaggle of teenage Margeras, screaming along and treating the immediate stage-front area like their own private octagon. Part of me was glad they have a very favorite band that’s actually worth a damn.