Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In the Church of the Great White Noise

Upon the summit I can see
The one I worshiped as a boy
The Creator, the Great White Noise

Last night Dear Husband and I went to see Owen Pallett (the most wonderful, most mind-blowing musician I have ever seen) in concert. The concert was held in a large ashtray. Or so it seemed. I smoked 2 packs and a cigarette never touched my lips. The large ashtray is a much loved bar/pub/venue called The Earle. The Earle looks just like such a place should look – grubby on the outside, with old concert posters crusting over the building face. It squats like a wino in a little parcel of newly renovated boutiques and shops. Earle had lost its sign, the waitress told me, when the last tornado went through. It sounded as there were no plans to replace it. A rusting bicycle hung from the ceiling for no apparent reason. The food was actually good (except for the French fries, which had the tang of old grease), and the waitress (who had impressive tattoos on both arms) was actually able to absorb the request for gluten free suggestions.

I don’t know why Dear Husband and I still arrive early to these events when no one bothers to show up until at least 20 minutes after the stated start time (which is still 10 minutes or so before the opening band actually starts), and often until the main act is onstage. But there we were, rattling around the empty room with a few other eager beavers. It was dim. It was shabby. It was relatively small. Stickers and posters covered most surfaces. Almost everyone was younger than us and were pretty much indistinguishable from each other. Definitely not the sort of audience that focused on being seen or looking hip, thankfully, as at these events I prefer to scuttle into a corner or pretend that I’m invisible. It became increasingly murky, with not even the scent of a clove cigarette to break the monotony.

Owen Pallett was magnificent. The songs on his most recent album are all backed by an orchestra, so he had to adapt them for a single violin with loop pedal and a guitarist/percussionist. What an incredible job he does with recording and playback, so that the sound is layered. I also really enjoy a musician who knows how to use a microphone without creating that hideous scratchy muffled sound that singers produce because they think they have to hold the mike somewhere near their tonsils, and who changes his distance from the mike when he increases the volume (why on earth don’t all singers do that?). He has a lovely voice, too. Magazines always refer to is as a “music school voice,” whatever that means. What does that mean, anyway? That it is trained rather than natural? Pretty?

There was a peculiar man in the audience. I’m not sure if he was high, or perhaps had been high so many times he was permanently affected, or if he had some unusual motor issue. Sometimes he held his hands in front of him as if he were about to take a dive into an imaginary pool, or perhaps launch into the Sun Salutation. Sometimes he took a shank of hair in each hand and made himself a set of horns. Sometimes he moved his hands to sculpt a cube from the air. And sometimes he shot his left arm straight up, jabbing at the air with his index finger, lowered it and then repeated the movement with his right arm. In the time-honored tradition of city dwellers, everyone studiously ignored him. Early in the show, when Mr. Trippy was particularly frisky, Owen did say, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I wish you’d stop doing that.” I’m not sure if that reined him in or if I just stopped noticing. Now and then I caught a bit of air sculpting. I assume that Owen entered into whatever musical zone he enters and stopped noticing as well.

Isn’t that cute? “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” I love Owen’s stage presence. He always says “Thank you” after each number, which is charming. He’s confident without being cocky about it. If he makes a mistake he acknowledges it with a laugh. He doesn’t try to be showy and seems perfectly comfortable being sort of geeky.

Dear Husband teases me because he thinks I’m besotted with everyone I get obsessed with. Owen has a British schoolboy appeal – very cute - but what I really feel is awe. The angels themselves can’t make more beautiful music. At least that’s how I feel listening to it. And to watch a musician play live, walking the tightrope of performance, leaping into space and then flying away, that’s a holy thing. This smoke-filled cave felt more holy than a church. Churches are filled with schmaltzy, cloying praise songs, three-point sermons and a utilitarian approach to the great mysteries. A true artist lives in the mystery.

Sadly, concerts are as ephemeral as cotton candy, melting quickly into memory. You chase the music and then it slips away with a regretful smile.


  1. Thanks much, B. (because I can never remember how to spell your first name properly).

  2. I love the type of pub you mention, so full of atmosphere. Thanks for introducing me to this musician, I'll look out for more of his stuff.

  3. Glad you guys enjoyed the post. I'm feeling crabby, so I think I'll rewatch all the videos.

  4. I keep returning to!

    Solely on this, I have found a cheap promo copy of his cd....

    ...thank you. Wishing that North Yorkshire, England, still looked like North Yorkshire but had access to bands/individuals like this that you recommend.

  5. Graham: So glad you like these. This music turned me inside out. Surely thanks to the Internet you have more access than ever, though perhaps they don't tour close by? In any case, I would really love to spend some time in North Yorkshire. I love England. I have some sort of primal connection to it.