All You Need is Drums to Start a Poetry Party: Piebald at the Soda Bar

piebald-tour-posterI’m posted up next to a row of broken down arcade machines, leaning against a Battletoads cabinet with a faded screen. The crowd, one of the larger ones I’ve seen at the Soda Bar, is milling around close to the stage, or wandering back and forth to the bar, balancing drinks as they squeeze between the hips and shoulders of other patrons. They’re waiting for a rock show; I’m waiting for a poetry reading. A poetry reading set to and backed by rock guitar maybe, but still a poetry reading.

Piebald formed in 1994 as a hardcore outfit, but quickly shifted to a more generalized indie/emo-rock mode, which grew and matured as the nineties became the aughts. Eventually, after nearly 15 years of music, they broke up in 2008. I was barely out of high school by then, and hadn’t even heard of Piebald. No, I only learned of them shortly before a brief series of reunion shows in 2010, and so my first experience with Piebald live was fated to be my last. Even so, the show left a lasting impression. Barely knowing the music, certainly not knowing the words, I found myself able to dance and sing along with the crowd, entered into a musical camaraderie. It was something I never expected to experience again, but with a purity so clear that once would be enough. Then, earlier this year, Piebald announced a reunion tour. Of course I’d be there.

Piebald took the stage just a little after 11, and I pushed off the ancient arcade cabinet and moved forward into the crowd. From the first notes the audience was yelling lyrics over the amps and climbing over themselves on the cramped dance floor. But when vocalist Travis Shettel announced, “this is the part of the set where we play the first five songs of We Are The Only Friends That We Have as fast as we can,” there was a noticeable upswing in the already abundant energy.

This is also the part of the set I’d like to focus on, as I can think of no better illustration of the literary capabilities of Piebald’s music than the opening of this album.

Lyrically (and of course it’s the lyrics I’d like to focus on as we ARE a literary magazine after all) Piebald songs tend to fall into one of two camps: there are the pieces which are narrative driven stories told in verse, and there are the pieces which are more akin to language poetry. Both forms tend to include heavy use of repetition, but not in the traditional verse and chorus back and forth, more of a looping and circling around on itself, a build-up of sonics and language.

“King of the Road” falls into the first camp. The song, an ode to the band’s old tour bus, opens with a vision of the future, before moving on to hallucinations of the vehicle in parking lots and on streets. The adoration of the band for their old bus is clear, but perhaps the standout line comes in the stunning affectation of “we keep your door like it’s a postcard from you from camp.”

Keeping true to playing as fast as they could, Piebald quickly slipped into “Just A Simple Plan”, a reverberating song that loops back on itself, makes a heavy use of “yeahs” as punctuation, and engages in light wordplay, like the insistence that “downtown looks like don’t own, if you look at it right.”

From there it was on to “American Hearts”, a quietly political song that combines a call and response chorus with a simple narrative of a walk through town. The verses push the story of shopping carts, window washing for petty cash, and the assertion that “history continues itself, continues itself.” Meanwhile, the chorus was marked by the audience shouting hey and yeah into a drop in the music, with Shettel then assuring us that we’re “part of it.” The song, which points to an unease in the American landscape, seems to indicate that everyone is part of the problem and the solution, without getting too mired in its own agenda.

This was the part of the mini-set where “as fast as we can” fell through, with the band requiring some re-tuning. They joked about the pause in the set, but soon launched into “Long Nights”, another song that circles around on itself, using its chorus more as a mantra and a touchstone. The effect is more reminiscent of a villanelle than your standard chorus heavy song structure.

The close of this little drive of theirs was the remarkable “Fear and Loathing on Cape Cod.” The song wears its literary influence on its sleeve, although its narrative is slightly less paranoid than the Hunter S. Thompson novel it takes its title from. I’m not much of a night owl, and by the time they’d reached this song, not only was it getting quite late, but I had work in the morning. I’ll admit it, I was tired, with my body supported mostly by the unified energy of the crowd. Still I found myself agreeing with Shettel as he, and the audience, sang, “It’s the most comfortable and uncomfortable place. The discomfort is not in a bad way. No, not in a bad way. Don’t make me go home.” A Piebald show, regardless of how you’re feeling going into it, is a source of comfort, a shared experience of art, it’s a poetry reading where everyone gets to recite the poem.

For more from Piebald check out http://www.piebald.com/

or for upcoming events at the Soda Bar, visit http://www.sodabarmusic.com/

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