Can a psychedelic rock band conjure real transcendence?
by Peter Bebergal
On a Wednesday night in an Allston, Massachusetts nightclub, four fellows — mostly hirsute, the drummer oddly clean-cut — are setting up onstage for a gig. I practically used to live in clubs like this, and the only thing missing from the familiar smell of sweat and alcohol is the waft of tobacco, now that Boston law prohibits smoking in bars. I used to do it all, bathing in the odor of a rock club. But tonight, the sickly-sweet smell of marijuana I caught outside irritated me; pot no longer makes my heart race in anticipation. And honestly, I just don’t go to shows anymore. It’s 10 PM, midweek, and normally I would be in bed. I always feel a little guilty leaving my wife home alone with our son.
Once everything is plugged in and tuned, the four band members sit on stools arranged in a kind of semi-circle, evoking the communal sensibility of a prayer group. The set begins with what sounds vaguely Americana, acoustic guitar under a kind of gospel-laden vocal — a knowing mix of Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley. Then, as the drummer slowly comes alive and the other musicians begin to add their own elements, you suddenly realize that while the music is urging you near, drawing you in, the band members themselves appear to be transforming. They close their eyes and rock back and forth. They hoot and yell out. And while they each play one of the key quartet instruments, they also contribute in a variety of other ways: glockenspiel, banjo, melodica. Their technique seems largely improvisational, but at its core the music is crafted. They recognize each other’s signatures and this gives them freedom, and courage. In a moment, I sense that their performance offers the promise that music can somehow change you, knock out the cotton in your brain, and give you a new kind of hope.
A dozen musical references begin to take hold — Syd Barrett, The Band, Tyrannosaurus Rex, The Incredible String Band, the progenitors of the music we call psychedelic. Then their contemporary counterparts — Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective, and a host of others that have been dubbed psych-folk.
Yet, as much as they depend on what came before, or on what their friends are doing, this band is building something new. After the first song climaxes and then reaches its denouement, the next song takes hold in a different way. No longer a movement towards some new musical syncretism, this song seems more about the band trying to groove in what they had just created. They begin a long jam. There is a palpable tension, as if they are trying to work it all out as they go along, not sure where the song (or the evening, for that matter) will take them, but more than willing to go for the ride. The band is Brooklyn’s Akron/Family, and they are heading towards the middle of their first set, on their first tour to promote their first album…. [continues]