Akron/Family | Live Review | Peter Joseph

Goodbye 45-minute sets and hello two and a half hours-plus of exhausting, exhilarating rock.

14 January 2006: Knitting Factory ‹ New York

Long Hauls? Yes; Bong Hauls? Maybe...

Indie rock is awash with clichés, and it's high time we lost a few: goodbye cowboy boots; goodbye extreme bangs; goodbye black horn-rimmed glasses; goodbye American Apparel (Sorry, Dov Charney, you'll just have to post your amateur porn on the Internet like everyone else).

And, most importantly, goodbye short sets. I've had enough of headlining acts that only play for 45 minutes. So what if you only have one album? I paid three dollars for this can of Pabst, and you better not finish before I do.

Of course, I'd gotten as used to the short set as the next guy. Maybe it's the nine-to-five, or because my left ear has started to ring like the alarm in Hell's firehouse; either way, I had started not to mind the short sets as much. Until recently, when bands wrapped up and packed up just shy of midnight, I was happy to bid them goodnight. Of course, this was all before Akron/Family came by, and reminded me of just what I've been missing. Goodbye 45-minute sets and hello two and a half hours-plus of exhausting, exhilarating rock.

But hold on just a sec... before I heap the praise on Akron/Family, I need to say a few words about Wooden Wand. Like Iron & Wine, Wooden Wand is really just a guy, a guitar, and dubious facial hair. Of course tonight, he was accompanied by a male guitarist and a fantastic female singer.  Together, Wooden Wand and Friends (Mr. Wand's impromptu name for the group) played a fantastic mix of original songs, flecking them with elements of folk and '60s rock.

The songs were excellent and the performance was relaxed. It was like sitting around a bonfire at a college party, listening to stoned friends play tunes (the story they told about how they were pulled over by the cops the day before and one of them had to swallow the joint only heightened this association). The trio's set was too short -- by my new standard -- but, since they were an opening act, I'll cut them some slack.

"How can we follow a set by Wooden Wand?" That was the question one member
of Akron/Family asked early in their own set. I wondered as well. The Akron/Family's two guitarists and bassist were seated in a row at the front of stage, MTV Unplugged-style, and the thought crossed my mind that I should grab a spot on the floor. The band's records are often noodly, a tad folky, and fairly reserved, so perhaps this was going to be a quiet night. Perhaps I would be in bed at a decent hour.

But this wasn't going to be some quiet night, and that decent hour was long gone before I finally got to bed. As soon as Akron/Family began playing, the guitarists and bassist began twisting and turning in their chairs like first graders with weak bladders. Almost immediately, they began to taunt the typically stoic New York crowd, telling us that we were zombies compared to the fans in Montreal. The band knew just how to cut straight to the heart of the New York hipster. How could we ignore a comparison to our rival hipster haven -- home of Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade? It wasn't long before the crowd was yelling along with the Akron/Family in a seriously heated chorus.

Now that we'd settled the score with Montreal, bassist Miles Seaton told us about an interview they'd done that had been published under the headline "Long Hauls and Bong Hauls". A perfect title, except that the band claims to be THC-free -- of course it's hard to know who to believe since another member later argued with the crowd about the merits of Brooklyn bud. In either case the crowd wasn't confused -- the smell of reefer wafted through the room all night... but perhaps that was Wooden Wand.

Now that the band had broken the ice, everyone in the crowd was singing along. That is, almost everyone. One tall gentleman with steel-gray hair refused to utter a word, giving Seaton the finger when he tried to taunt a smile out of the onlooker. This guy had to be some kid's dad, or an asshole, or both. Just who did he think he was?

"Crowd," Seaton told us, "meet Michael Gira." That's right; it was the founder of Young God Records, the former leader of Swans, and the man behind a little folkie named Devendra Banhart. If ever there was a lesson about respecting your elders at rock shows, this would be it. Of course, Gira taught us all another lesson later, taking not one, not two, but three deep swigs of the band's eighth of Jack Daniels.

The set kept going at full throttle and Akron/Family leapt effortlessly from genre to genre, venturing without trepidation into the potentially cheesy territory of '80s funk and '90s rock. Their set was like Brian Wilson's SMiLE performed by Black Sabbath, an unparalleled mix of sunny harmonies and bottom-heavy, jazz-metal jams. Their music was new, uninhibited, and I couldn't get enough of it.

That is... until I realized that I had been standing for nearly two hours, and I had gotten enough of it. Thankfully, they moved past the hard-rocking jams to the droning, feedback portion of the evening. While the guitars lay buzzing on the floor, the bandmembers kept up the percussion on a variety of drums, plush toy songbirds, bells, and rubber duckies attached to contact mics. In the midst of this melee, a bearded, longhaired hippie clambered up on to the stage and, without acknowledgment from the band, began playing harmonica.

Before long, the bandmembers had migrated to the center of the crowd. By jumping up and down on the floor, they kept a layer of percussion while singing a sort of meditative chant. The floor shook with the collective rhythm and harmonies rose from every corner of the room; I realized that I was enjoying the incredible, organic finale to a great rock show. For all the hippy-dippy meanderings of the contemporary freak-folkers, this was the first time any of them had inspired an actual, honest-to-god happening in my presence. What a way to end a show!

Except, it wasn't the end. After several false stops, the chant finally ebbed amidst a roar from the audience. Then the bandmembers ambled back onto the stage. The crowd got ready to head out, pausing in confusion as the guys sat back down, re-tuned their instruments, and started rocking... again.

What the hell was happening? One of the singers said that his voice was shot -- understandably so, given the yelling that had taken place during the audience be-in -- but he and his buddies sounded as sweet as ever.

Finally (and this time I really mean it) the Knitting Factory staff gave the band a stern five-minute warning, and the set petered out. The crowd shook itself out of the dream state, realizing at once that it was just shy of three in the morning. We had survived, but, like a dirty debutante, we'd been ruined forever.

After seeing a two and a half hour set by Akron/Family, how can we continue
to accept 45-minute shows by groups that are afraid to get their shirts sweaty? Akron/Family don't even wear shirts.

‹ 18 January 2006