“Don’t you know he’s the Devil?”… One of the first lines I caught from the Grace Joyner opening act prefaced her Lynchian set well. Her sound enveloped the few people present at the Charleston Music Hall on Friday, September 18, with a mystique only comparable to those infamous bar scenes in Twin Peaks or True Detective. Illuminated by that familiar purple-and-bluish light, the singer exposed her soul for the venue to witness. In a black leather dress, red lipstick, and with long hair, she stood in the modestly uncomfortable way that someone does when they are about to tell an intimate story. In fact, her set was a game of cat and mouse between her and that devil in the heart of an erratic lover.
You could see the burning in her eyes as she purged her memories into the microphone, engulfed in the abreaction that the ephemeral nature of the song allowed. She was never in control, her experiences chained her, and all she could do was share her pain, which swung around into confidence, and then turned into a forced indifference that was still lined with some kind of passionate reflection. She chased her devil, was chased, and then became tired of running. Her ever-present organ slurred her songs into continuity, the drums, keyboard, and bass guitar added fullness not only in sound, but even more so in emotional emphasis. The show dripped in atmosphere, causing a diegetic absorption into the Black Lodge of her dreams and memories. Grace Joyner’s two obsessions, dreams and her devil, converged finally as she closed her set singing, “Talk about your dreams… Do you ever dream of me?”
While Grace Joyner’s songs were an intimate glimpse into a distinct perspective, the headlining band, Songs of Water, played a set designed to present the world. There must have been 50 different instruments on stage, ranging from an accordion, to violins and fiddles, to many others that I’ve never even seen. Towards the beginning of their show front man Stephen Roach made the claim, “Some people think we are a Country/Americana band, so we are going to play a country song.” All six members of the band ensued to pick up a different type of drum and perform a stomping tribal beat that lasted well over six minutes. “I just didn’t say what country the song would be from,” Roach joked when the song was over. Before the last song, Roach made sure to point out the “beautiful instrument from Turkey” that band mate Luke Skaggs was going to play. Earlier, while Skaggs and Roach were tuning in between songs, they conversed about the meaning of the one they were about to play:
“Surrealism,” Skaggs offered.
“Right, its about Surrealism,” Roach confirmed, “French poets, and Afghanistan.”
(“What is this, an essay?” I thought to myself.)
At this point, though I knew he was joking, I also knew a part of him wasn’t, and I began to think that these guys were a little pretentious. (A shocking claim, I know, coming from someone who uses words like “abreaction” and “diegetic” and “Lynchian.”) But, in their goal to transcend their own perspective, somewhere they decided to just ignore it, which actually made their perspective even more obvious. Each band member probably played five or six different instruments throughout the show, often switching mid-song, which is “truly incredible,” as the lovely couple sitting next to me put. “No wonder it took them three years to make their newest album, with so many instruments,” I commented back. But what was even more incredible was how all of their songs seemed to sound the same, a mix of dripping strings, floating vocals, and drums from all angles. (Imagine if Sufjan Stevens sang for The Decemberists, but with even more cringy lyrics, “I became friends with sun, moon, and stars,” Roach sings in the first song of the set.)
Make no mistake; Songs of Water is drenched in talent. And maybe only “true” connoisseurs of music can come to appreciate their plethora of ingredients. But you really only get what you would expect from a band with a name like Songs of Water. For example, you would expect the lead singer to make sure to mention his poetry book for sale at the merch table (which he actually did).
There were fun moments in their performance, like anytime violinist Elisa Rose Cox felt the music and her beautifully contagious smile spread across her face. But most of the show followed Roach’s self-fulfilling prophecy stated early on, “That’s a fun song, it feels like a lullaby.” Maybe the couple next to me also felt this, as they left two and a half songs early to go dancing downtown. Nevertheless, their set was a spectacle. To see so many instruments put to use is rare, and you can’t help but realize how much time and effort they must have put into each detail. How anyone could have thought to switch from xylophone to violin to clarinet in one song is beyond me. And maybe this genius warranted the semi-smug grin on Roach’s face upon receiving applause at the conclusion of each song, but to me it seemed a bit self-indulgent. At the completion of their set, when the spectators at the Charleston Music Hall rose to give Songs of Water an obligatory standing ovation, because they knew what they just saw was praiseworthy, even if lackluster, I was just glad to get up out of my seat and shake off the lethargy.
Bradley Harrison, Jean Hubbard, photos by Holden Curran
You can also catch Holden with his show “Locale,” Thursdays at 6PM only on CisternYard Radio. Make sure to follow him on Instagram (@westcoastcaufield).