Blitzen Trapper House of Blues October 12, 2010
Because Aftermath only found out former KLOL morning DJ Mark Stevens had died a few hours before Blitzen Trapper went onstage at House of Blues Tuesday night, we couldn't help thinking about that while the Portland six-piece played to an extremely sparse crowd.
It might have already been too late for Blitzen to crack Rock 101's rotation when Stevens and longtime partner Jim Pruett began their reign as Houston's "Radio Gods" in 1986, but there was a time when the station would have welcomed the group's sharp-edged, smart fusion of prog, folk and indie with open arms. In turn, Blitzen would have probably drawn more people than could have easily fit into the Bronze Peacock Room next door or probably even downstairs at Fitzgerald's.
But, to quote Uncle Tupelo, that time is gone.
This was not the same band that Aftermath discovered, somewhat belatedly, at the 2008 Austin City Limits Music Festival, the one that lived up to every shaggy, latter-day Grateful Dead/Crosby Stills & Nash tag that had been hung on them. Not at first.
Opening with "Fire & Fast Bullets" from 2008's Furr, this Blitzen was harder, heavier, proggier and jerkier through "Fire," "Laughing Lover" from new LP Destroyers of the Void, and Furr's "God + Suicide," putting us more in mind of ACL 2010 headliners Muse than those hoary '60s linchpins or even Blitzen's backwoodsy Sub Pop kinsmen Fleet Foxes. Another new one, "Love and Hate," added a bluesy Thin Lizzy power-kick for good measure.
The band took it over the top with Destroyer's title track, which began as a pristine harpsichord-cued chorale before veering off into an extended prog-blues jam and a coda leaving front man Eric Earley alone at the keyboard. Never having actually listened to a whole lot of King Crimson or Captain Beefheart, the middle part especially was pretty much exactly what Aftermath has always imagined Trout Mask Replica must sound like.
But then on the mellow, midtempo Southern boogie of "Evening Star" - just call them the Widespread Panic of Portland - Blitzen settled into more familiar territory. Jerry Garcia beamed over the banjo-kissed "The Tree," the ghost of Bob Dylan joined in on harmonica for "Silver Moon," and the recorder-aided heavy strum of "Badger's Black Brigade" completed the transition to Big Pink territory.
By "Furr," which followed Earley's solo acoustic turn on "The Man Who Would Be True" and a duet with guitarist Erik Menteer on harmonica for "Taking It Easy Too Long," Aftermath could almost see the tumbleweeds and hear the coyotes in the lonesome Music Hall. A campfire and a batch of beans cooked up in a Dutch oven and it would have been perfect.
Blitzen snapped out of Oregon Trail mode on "Dragon's Song," pairing a snarling electric Neil Young lick with chiming xylophone and a vaguely Oriental melody (of course), before bringing the evening to a close with a Basement Tapes double-shot of "Sadie" - which, bizarrely, drew more frat-boy whoops from the crowd than any other song - and "Sleepy Time In the Western World." (An exhausted Aftermath could not have agreed more.)
Call it classic rock if you want, but Blitzen Trapper made it feel pretty fresh Tuesday. On a day when one of Houston's greatest old-school DJs danced his last waltz, a band from Portland kept that old free-form spirit alive.
Personal Bias: Well, we can't speak for the rest of Houston - who was either suffering from an ACL hangover or just had better things to do Tuesday - but we enjoyed it.
The Crowd: Young, casual and appreciative. And sober - there was one lonely waitress working the tables behind the soundboard, but we're not sure we ever actually saw anyone go to the bar.
Overheard In the Crowd: Pass.
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Random Notebook Dump: Aftermath has five pair of tickets for tonight's Accept/King's X show at HOB free for whoever wants them at the Houston Press' front desk, 1600 Milam, Suite 100 downtown (Milam & Pease). We assume there will be more people tonight than showed up Tuesday.
Fire & Fast Bullets Laughing Lover God & Suicide Love and Hate Destroyer of the Void Evening Star The Tree Silver Moon Badger's Black Brigade The Man Who Would Be True Taking It Easy Too Long Lady On the Water Hurricane Furr Dragon's Song Sadie Sleepy Time In the Western World