Irving Plaza – New York, NY
March 18, 2005
Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy March 28, 2005
And that, my friends, was — without question — the best live show I have ever seen.
On the reunion of the reunions, more than a decade since it dissolved in the wake of the frighteningly perfect Spiderland, Slint rolled into New York City. Rumor had it that this was only the second time the band had ever performed live here but, from the sounds of it, you would think they had never left the stage.
There was anticipation written all over the faces of the sold-out Irving Plaza crowd, an anxiousness made all the more pronounced by the number of years that have passed since the Louisville-bred quartet last took to the road.
But the band delivered and it delivered big.
There was an alarming energy and precision in the entire performance, sure, and not a note was dropped or mumbled during a set that featured the entirety of Spiderland, the vast majority of Tweez, and both songs off the band’s posthumous and untitled EP.
But there was also an unexpected chemistry on stage, a give-and-take between the musicians that was downright eerie given the fact that Slint — notwithstanding a rumored reunion around the time guitarist/vocalist Brian McMahan formed The For Carnation in the early/mid-1990s — has been nothing more than a presence in vinyl grooves and the minds of its fans and followers for the better part of 15 years.
It was the type of performance that leaves you at a loss for words, one that you know, in 10 or 20 years’ time, you’ll look back and say, “I was there.”
The band, performing alternately as a quartet and quintet, kicked things off with a brilliant and pummeling rendition of “Good Morning, Captain,” the bass-driven tension-builder/tension-releaser that closed Spiderland.
During the song, listeners got their first glimpse of Slint featuring The For Carnation alum Todd Cook, who did a more-than-adequate (and sometimes almost instinctive) job of filling in for former bassists Ethan Buckler (now in King Kong) and Todd Brashear. They also got a sense of how much the rhythm section of the band lent its songs much of their power.
After hearing just how hard Britt Walford hit his drum kit, one might be driven to return to Slint’s back catalog and reconsider if it is always the glassy guitars of David Pajo or the affecting whispers of Brian McMahan that are the band’s most riveting or ravishing moments.
On record, Walford’s percussion is inventive and, on further listens, almost strange in how atypical yet natural it sounds. Live, though, he’s a percussionist in the controlled-yet-explosive, post-rock tradition of John McEntire (in his Bastro days) and Kyle Crabtree (circa Eleven Eleven or Shipping News).
The set-opener was also alarming because it seemed to remind McMahan of the bombastic refrains and sonic landscapes from which he came.
(Please remember Squirrel Bait.)
While The For Carnation has mastered the majesty of muted notes and carefully whispered refrains, there may have been fewer moments of the evening that were more dead-on and emotive than when McMahan, slowly rocking back and forth in a plain white t-shirt, his neck crained back and eyes seemingly closed, roared that familiar closing to “Good Morning, Captain” — “I miss you!”
It only got better from there.
The band knocked out an enveloping and beautiful version of “Washer,” its most devastating recording, and energetic, even pristine takes on both “Breadcrumb Trail” and “Nosferatu Man.” (The live performance of “Washer” will go down in several minds, mine included, as a long-time wish fulfilled.)
The crowd responded with glee when Pajo busted into his bluesy solos in the Tweez gem “Pat.” During the kick-drum breakdown in “Kent,” more than a few smiled as they read (or lip-synched) lines from the song: “Don’t worry about me, I’ve got a bed.”
At other moments, when the band wandered into quieter terrain, the crowd fell to complete silence. During a hushed performance of the slowly unfolding instrumental “For Dinner,” or a somber take on “Don, Aman” (led by Walford on guitar and vocals), you couldn’t hear a pin drop. You could the breathing of the person standing next to you.
Elsewhere, the energy of the group’s performance was infectious — during the verses of “Glenn,” heads bobbed up and down and limbs swayed as if they were captured in the rhythm of a moon-raptured tide.
While it was often the songs from the critically lauded Spiderland that seemed to move the crowd the most, the Tweez tracks were a particular treat, if only because they resonated differently live than in the crevices of Steve Albini’s not-lauded-enough 1987 recording of them.
On the eight-song LP, Slint sounded like a young quartet exploding out of the progressive rock tradition, a direct descendant, even, of acts like King Crimson. This was due, in no small part one would guess, to Albini’s clever and inventive recording of the songs, which lent them a sonic richness but also an unexpected kind of color and shape.
Live, the songs had the same sense of texture and depth but felt more connected to the band’s later material, which many cite as the foundation of post-rock. As Pajo hammered out the familiar patterns of “Darlene” or Walford and Cook slammed away on “Warren” or McMahan softly narrated, the work sounded like more and more like a bridge to Spiderland — a youthful predecessor to the decidedly mature and reflective work that followed it.
The band closed, after running through the vast majority of its songbook (sorry kids, no cover of “Cortez the Killer”), with an extended take on “Rhoda.”
Instead of ending with a few distorted notes (a la Tweez) or the drone of a seemingly unattended electric guitar (a la the untitled EP), though, New York audiences were treated to a full-blown meltdown. As strobe lights did seizure-inducing somersaults, the band went into full-attack mode, McMahan and Pajo and the rest playing with a reckless abandon that, despite the scope of a mind-blowing set, it clearly had been saving for last.
It was yet another reminder, if any were needed, about why this band has been cited by everybody and their grandmother as one of the most influential indie groups of the last 20 years.
And rightfully goddamned so.
As the crowds poured into the streets, there were, no doubt, a few glazed looks, a few half-dropped mouths and even more expectations and curiousities and mutterings of, “What next?”
Will Slint fade back into darkness as quickly as it unexpectedly had risen from it? Will Touch N’ Go convince the group to put aside its other projects (between McMahan, Cook, and Pajo alone we have The For Carnation, Papa M, touring duties with Shipping News, and collaborations with Will Oldham to consider) and focus on writing/releasing new material? Will we get a compilation of live sets recorded as Slint criss-crossed the globe on its much-anticipated reunion?
Time will tell.
For a handful of nights and for those with the foresight to find tickets, though, one of the greatest bands of the 1990s was here again, just like a dream, proving that wine and whiskey aren’t the only things that become more rich with each passing year.