Sunburned Hand of the Man; Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan; Head of Wantistiquet; Terry H. Garrish Jazz Ensemble
Nightlight, Chapel Hill
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

For all of the urgency and energy a band on a stage can offer, live music is mostly an exercise in patience. A touring act, for instance, spends 23 or so hours each day waiting to play, while an enthusiastic fan might withstand days, weeks, even months waiting for the coveted evening to arrive. On the more situational and pragmatic front, shows are divided between spells of engagement and lulls of idleness—underwhelming opening acts, long set changes, extended technical errors. Live music is a realm of immediacy and satisfaction, meted out at a deliberate, near-sadistic pace.

That feeling was especially prevalent last night at Nightlight, where the mischievous psychedelic collective Sunburned Hand of the Man headlined a four-band bill. Once one of the busiest acts amid the so-called New Weird America hubbub, Sunburned has been largely still of late, its members (namely drummer and anchor John Moloney) occupied by a glut of other projects. At their best, Sunburned Hand of the Man improvised with aggression, thundering drums lashing at a dense and waving network of guitars, horns, vocals and electronic accouterments.

So, last night, anticipation was high. Not only was Sunburned making a rare road trip and stopping in Chapel Hill, but they’d brought along Dinosaur Jr. drummer Murph as a special guest. Moloney and Murph pushing the freak show from behind? OK, let’s go.
But then, of course, came the waiting: The 9:30 p.m. Tuesday night start time slid into 10 p.m. which slid into 10:30 p.m. and, finally, the start of the set by the Terry H. Garrish Jazz Ensemble.

The pause for Garrish wasn’t worth it. Though the drums-guitar-synthesizer trio’s name is a nifty joke, ostensibly meant as a send-up of stodgy jazz nomenclature, it involuntarily exposed a central weakness within the group’s knee-jerk spams: They don’t really listen to each other. The guitarist hopscotched among his pedals, not so much selecting and directing as sampling the sounds to see if anything interesting might ever show up. The same applied to the rest of the outfit—never linking, missing cues, operating independently. It wasn’t so much that they derailed as they never started to move.

When they’d cleared the floor of their gear, the night finally found some momentum. Head of Wantistiquet, the solo guitar concern of Sunburned member Paul LaBrecque, lurked in a corner of the stage, close to an amp and hidden from plain view. His prismatic guitar pieces explored astral blues abstraction, not unlike Tom Carter or Loren Connors. The set was short but effective, a welcoming into LaBrecque’s world that refused to show too much at once.

While he played, you could hear the occasional vibration of Anne Gomez’ electric bass strings, as she sat nearby rehearsing without an amplifier. Before LeBrecque started his set, Gomez’ veteran Durham trio—perhaps recognizing the delay in the weeknight schedule—set up on the floor where the “Jazz Ensemble” had once been. Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan launched quickly and emphatically into their material, an exercise in passing off extreme precision as unapologetic chaos. Though they’re less active than they once were, CG&J remain one of the Triangle’s most thrilling bands, able to piggyback the energy of No Wave onto the intricacy of math-rock and somehow sound tougher than either. If only they had kept going…

When Sunburned finally took the stage just before 12:30 a.m., they’d inherited the night’s presiding desultory mood. There was no line between the soundcheck and the set, for instance. The seven musicians slowly wandered to the stage, as though to test their instruments before a proper start. But their trials never actually stopped. Diminutive keyboard themes and loops burbled into a wider, richer sound. Murph ambled behind his drum kit, and he and Maloney began building peristaltic rhythms that rose and fell, expanded and contracted. It felt promising.

Sunburned were always a mercurial act, dependent upon who was available for what record or tour. With two vocalists, two drummers, two guitarists, a bassist and a menagerie of samplers and synths scattered about the stage, last night was no different. One of those players—an impish guy with a bobbed haircut, wearing an oversized basketball jersey and reclining behind a synthesizer stuffed into a flight case—seemed to have assumed the role of instigator. Not long after the aleatoric rumblings coalesced into something somewhat smooth, he began yelling, “Stop lighting the audience! Let me do my show for Christ’s sake,” a reference to a semi-viral video of Billy Joel howling much the same during a concert decades ago. To accompany the vocal tantrum, he threw microphone stands, beer cans, wooden chairs and bar stools into the audience, giving up his position behind the synthesizer to become a splenetic Joel impersonator.

It was silly, but more important, it was a crutch, the antic around which the rest of the band’s brief performance built. If there was any motion to the music—and there was very little—it was from the fellow out front. That onstage aggression felt unwarranted, but not because no one in the crowd had done anything wrong. Rather, few in the band had done very little right. The music was listless and complacent, resting on the legacy of a troupe that seemed, at least last night, to exist only in name and not in spirit.

And that’s too bad, because that was an awful lot of waiting for a late Tuesday set that mostly let the paying folks down.