Earthless, Joy, Hot Lunch, Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco, 24/10/2013

Coming down off that mountain...

Y'know that scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, when the secretary is rattling off all the disparate social cliques united only by their love for Ferris? Well, it sorta felt like that at the Earthless show in San Francisco on October 24 -- the skaters, the 'bangers, the suits, the retro wannabes, the bros, the stoners, the post-metallers, the tanked, the hippies -- they were all there, they all think Earthless is a righteous band.

And it's not hard to see why. Earthless' list of influences is oh-so au courant in what seems to be the point of critical mass for all things heavy/psych/stoner in popular culture these days. Or at least that's how I come to understand the fact that there was such a wide swathe of social types in the crowd. And while for a bit I was a little bummed on seeing entire groups of khaki and oxford, that only lasted until Earthless actually took the stage. More on that later.

I arrived halfway through the set of local band Hot Lunch, a bunch of fuzz-munchers with a helluva name and a good attitude. There's nothing super-original to their approach, but they know their rock n' roll and they play it well. Some fun dudes who like to write songs about, and I quote, " getting drunk on the moon." No airs here.

Joy was next. I recognized their logo from shirts of numerous youngsters around town, and so it was that I now knew this emblem belonged not to some cult-hip clothing company, or else a yoga collective, but to the newest heavy-psych band all the kiddies were rockin' these days. While I stood up front for the first few songs, trying to restrain my cynicism about the current glut of retro-psych bands, I quickly found a seat over by the merch for a little R n' R. There were a few reasons for this: (1) I was saving energy for Earthless, (2) I'd been standing all day at work and was ready for a sit-down, and (3) Joy simply wasn't that great.

It doesn't really make sense to let a lesser version of one's own band open for oneself, but that is indeed what Earthless did. Joy play a very self-aware brand of Blue Cheer psychedelic blues, and I guess what was illuminated to me was how subtly difficult it can be to pull off this type of music. For, as I traffic in musicks which sometimes defy expectation in terms of dexterity, technicality, and composition, it's easy to forget how tricky it can be to satisfactorily ride a simple, gut-level groove. During Joy's forays into Earthless, Jr. jam territory, this was made quite clear to me. My impression of them was certainly amplified by the garb of its members, which was indeed achingly '70s. What? Am I really talking about what the dudes were wearing? Well, yeah. When you ape an entire era of music, and then dress the part, too, I see it as uncritical fetishization of a bygone time.

Okay, okay, okay. Time for the main act, right? Yes. So at this point I had staked my spot at the front for what I was still confident would be a damn fine set. Even as my tastes have largely moved out of the realm of "stoner" and into things more fucked and dark, my respect for Earthless has remained. Earthless play propulsive instrumental rock from somewhere deep down, and it's impossible to pigeonhole such a singular musical experience. While their tastes register with a current large-scale fascination with old-school pentatonic heaviness, Earthless do not simply rehash what has already been done. Each member is a consummate musician with a deep bag of sounds, textures, rhythms at their disposal, and they put each to ample use in this project. But I'm waxing poetic over here -- the point is, they fuckin' rocked. 

Drummer Mario Rubalcaba is a goddamn beast, alternately smashing and coaxing the groove out of his set -- dude's a slave to the beat. Bassist Mike Eginton -- man, as much as I love bass, I didn't get much of a chance to check out his chops. He gravitated toward the dark corner near his amp, and anyway I was pretty enraptured watching guitarist Isaiah Mitchell's handiwork. Mitchell's definitely a user, not an abuser of effects. That's ultimately what I like so much about Earthless -- everything they do is in service of getting the listener's (or their own) rocks off. In quieter passages, Mitchell's trippy delay handily satisfied the stoner contingent of the audience, whilst Rubalcaba and Eginton brought up the pulsing low-end rear. And in smashier segments, Mitchell often harnessed the power of the wah to create a razor's-edge tension that could, and would, be consummated at any given moment, and repeatedly. The crowd went pretty fuckin' nuts, to the point where many of the mellower guys and gals got a little bummed that they couldn't space out in frickin' peace, man. Most of the material played was off the band's 2013 release, From the Ages (Tee Pee Records), with the title track of that album being an absolute showstopper live.

The Earthless ones ended the evening with a cover of a song I couldn't rightly discern -- they are scholars of '60s and '70s psych, so I'm sure it was a well-informed pick.The cover was short, by Earthless standards, and seemed a trifling matter compared to the seething jams they'd spent the last hour-plus laying down. Maybe they just wanted to bring us down easy off that mountain.