I practically drove though the set of The Wire to get to Baltimore's Ottobar to see the band Earth Friday night. Living in Washington, D.C., I've seen my share of seedier streets, but the GPS on my phone put me through miles of Charm City's naughty business when, in hindsight, the venue isn't too far from the city's main drag. I need to start using real maps again.
I had missed the doomy Americana band on its 2008 orbit through the D.C. area. Sometimes there are tough decisions in life, and this one involved seeing Earth or seeing the ambient-classical masters in Stars of the Lid with a string trio. (I opted for the latter and, honestly, still feel the bliss.) With no conflicts except my lack of direction, Earth was not to be missed, and as I discovered, is a live band truly invested in its craft.
There's nothing performative about Earth — no high-kicks, no light show, no rapturous screams (Earth is, after all, an instrumental band). In fact, the most energy we saw out of Dylan Carlson the entire evening was a slightly raised guitar to signal the downbeat. Instead, the members of Earth are inside of every song, digging into the slow, enveloping sound. Five aspects of the band's performance at Ottobar stood out:
- Adrienne Davies' drum kit is sparse, but her sound is massive. To turn the band into a metaphor, Davies is the smoldering core of Earth, and I doubt Dylan Carlson would disagree. Her BPM rivals a tortoise on his best day, yet every beat is carefully and forcefully considered, resulting in a tremendous impact.
- Dylan Carlson still loves feedback. When Earth re-formed and reshaped its heavy music vision in 2005 with Hex; Or Imprinting on the Infernal Method, Carlson abandoned the metallic, droning feedback of Earth 2 that inspired Sunn O))). Records since then have featured a rustic yet clean guitar tone that's just as heavy. At Ottobar, even with a modest Fender Deluxe Reverb amp, Carlson wove in feedback as a subtle texture, nodding to his past in stolen moments.
- Cellist Lori Goldstein is a crucial addition to this Earth formation. On an album she didn't even play on, Goldstein made The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull's title track her song. Forget the soulful, droning Hammond B-3 on the original recording, Goldstein pulls everything back and renders a ghostly Appalachia with drawn-out strings.
- Earth becomes the quintessential American band live. With a set mostly culled from its latest album, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1, the band introduced a new song. Carlson said it was atypical of the forthcoming album (part 2 of Angels), but, if anything, the unnamed piece felt like the next logical step for Earth. Imagine the upbeat Western swing rhythm as a mournful slow dance, and it's still the fastest I've heard Earth. More so than their studio recordings, Carlson and crew give these rock- and folk-based American music forms a slow, stately reverence we didn't know was missing.
- Earth's members are thoughtful improvisers. Without even leaving the stage, Carlson announced that they were going to skip tradition and do the encore right then and there. "Descent to the Zenith," like most Earth tracks, has plenty of room to move around in, but it was as if Monk sat down at the piano and deconstructed his very own song. Made more sinister by the periodic down-tuning of the low E-string, "Descent to the Zenith" became less front-porch Grateful Dead and more back-alley Black Sabbath.
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And a quick note to the kid standing in front of me who obnoxiously texted throughout the performance: Do not scoff at the metalhead making invisible oranges with his hands. 1) You paid to go to a rock 'n' roll show. Watch it. 2) He was just as inside of every song as Earth, and it's too bad you missed it.
Earth just finished its East Coast tour, but the band hits up the West Coast in July.