Howlin' Wolf

June 11, 2005

Photos by DC Harbold

Guitarist Steve Albini had some sort of strange mating dance goin' on. His guitar was held to his body by a harness around his waist, so it allowed for full-bodied gyrations that you normally don't see from guitarists.

Somehow, the wacky time signatures in the angular music of Shellac was danceable. It helped that the group was a trio because bassist Bob Weston's weighty and menacing sound couldn't be ignored. There wasn't an extra guitar to bury it. The bass sounded as thick as ice you're trapped under. The bass had enough force to change a heartbeat(those last three words could have been the key lyric to any cheesy '80's song).

The groove was always there, but sometimes to hear it I had to tap my foot using the guidance of my internal timekeeper. It wasn't linear music. It was broken. Swaying rhythms stopped and exploded back onto track with no notice. Things repeated themselves, but who knew for how long they'd go on, or if a completely new section or rhythm would pop up, or if they'd go off on a minute long noise jam. Or if the music would just stop and Albini would go off on a five minute rant. That's exactly what he did during a song in which he talked about the insanity of the "crazy" label society puts on people. He basically said that there are degrees of crazy, and that's it's relative. He said that in your darkest moment people might think you're crazy. In a metaphor for suicide and the pain we endure, he said people don't take their hand out of the fire because they're afraid of it. They take their hand out of the fire because it hurts. And, when Albini said "hurts," his voice broke as he accented his point. This philosophy and sincerity is a backbone of Shellac.

Shellac played dark, scraping songs with heart. They incorporated the sound of Wire into the horrific humor of The Minutemen. Not horror in the horror movie sense. Horror in that you're not sure if you should laugh or gasp. Sometimes that's how we deal with the crap--laugh at it. "Prayer to God" was about killing an ex-girlfriend and her lover. It was funny just because Albini said, "Make him cry like a woman. No particular woman." And, he kept repeating "Just kill him." "The Squirrel Song" was simply silly. It dealt with thousands of squirrels on the loose.

Albini always talked. He didn't sing, and if he screamed, Lord help you. What a horrific wail that came from a man that didn't care about its quality, just its execution. It'd be great to see what Celine Dion thinks of Albini's catharsis.

Chicago's Shellac has been around for twelve years. They normally don't play outside of the tri-state area, but Albini was in town Saturday night for the Tape Op Conference. It's rumored he scouted out venues and made sure the Howlin' Wolf was worthy of a Shellac performance while in town for the conference last year. Albini's trepidation paid off. I'm not sure if he brought his own sound guy, but I've never heard a concert sound better at the Wolf. Crisper than an album. Of course, Albini's vocals were lost here and there, but his guitar destroyed the air. He killed it. His signature razorblade guitar noise made the air go, "Ow, that hurts. I'm bleeding!"

The place was packed. Audience members in the front did some strange dances, but there was no danger of a mosh pit. Instead of between song banter, Weston took questions from the audience. Most weren't that thought out. Example: "When are you gonna play here again?" Normal: "Why haven't you played (insert interrogator's favorite song here)?"

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