Douglas Martin measures his favorite live shows by shoe filth.
There’s a chance you weren’t reading this site five years ago. If you weren’t and would like a brief synopsis of what Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes was like back then, one of its main points was about Thee Oh Sees being the best live band in the world.
After seeing them run away with fans’ hearts at a Jay Reatard show in 2009, after almost being swept away in an avalanche of people (and getting kicked in the face by a crowd surfer) in 2010—with an assortment of undeniably great shows and moments between those points—I witnessed them as easily one of the five best performances of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival after being relegated to the Blue Stage; fans spilling out into the walkway and far past the barriers, even when the group was slotted against their friends and frequent touring partners in the Ty Segall Band.
More than a few moments of beauty existed in Thee Oh Sees’ recorded discography, but their live performances eschewed any traces of tenderness. When facing any number of sweaty garage-punks or otherwise reasonable music fans, the band brought out a visceral intensity, a love of volume, and a gleeful sense of abandon. Whether you were pushed into the lip of the stage by the movement of the crowd or watching to see if any of the band’s songs would fall off the rails (none of them did), being in willing attendance at an Oh Sees show was an act of knowing danger. Your toes hung off the cliff and you saw the river 45 feet below.
It helps that the songs were uniformly stellar Even though John Dwyer’s most overlooked quality is his being a great songwriter, nobody who sees him front a band walks out of a venue talking about structure. They usually talk about Dwyer swilling back a bottle of beer while in the middle of a guitar solo, or how the rest of his band accomplished the minor miracle of keeping up with him while he spit toward the rafters and blew through damn near an hour’s worth of music without a setlist.
When I wrote my all-too-early eulogy for Thee Oh Sees, it turned out to only be the passing of their OG-Triple-OG lineup, the one with Dwyer on guitar, Petey Dammit also on guitar (on which he played the bass lines), Mike Shoun on drums, and Brigid Dawson—either the band’s secret weapon or their outright ace, depending on who you ask—on keyboards and backing vocals. At the end of the aforementioned piece, I said, “This may not even be the last we see of Thee Oh Sees.” Have you ever been a little sad to be right about something?
Thee Oh Sees from Drop were a completely different incarnation of the band, destined from jump to be a slight disappointment to anyone who was susceptible to bursting into confetti the first time they heard Dwyer and Dawson harmonizing on “Visit Colonel.” The songs went in the same directions to less fruitful destinations. The band seemed sapped of their character—that of extremely charismatic and talented misfits—and poked with an IV labeled Just Another Garage Band.
Maybe I’m being too hard on them. Dwyer’s songwriting was on occasion as blissfully weird as ever, sometimes even more so. And though Drop was maybe the lesser of all Oh Sees albums, it wasn’t bad. Mutilator: Defeated at Last was a better, more effective example of what this new version of Thee Oh Sees could accomplish. “Web” was the lead single, and though it felt like a noticeable step up, like the new members of the band just needed a period to work their gears together, I don’t know if it was quite the stunner, say, “I Was Denied” was. Being a fan of anything, calling anything your favorite in the world, quite often involves unreasonable expectations.
Sometimes all a song needs is to provide a different context. Castle Face Records’ incredible Live in San Francisco series has featured some of the world’s best emerging and extant contemporary garage-rock bands—including White Fence, Fuzz, and Useless Eaters—in a setting crucial to most garage bands’ success. The gap between Thee Oh Sees’ first live album and this one probably shouldn’t be so vast, especially considering 2009-2012 were their most impactful years as a live entity, but it is a welcome addition even without featuring their all-star lineup.
You know when a band releases a live album, and the band chooses a particular song and wisely divorces it from its recorded version? There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with “Web,” mostly that its headlong charge was done before and better numerous times by the band. The Live in San Francisco version, however, seems a little less preserved in amber. The drums are more polyrhythmic, the guitars and synths a little more violent, the danger a little more prevalent.
It’s been awhile since the last time I’ve seen Thee Oh Sees live. I catch wind of people on Twitter hitting up their shows as excitedly as I did when I played my candy apple red vinyl copy of Help for any unsuspecting company taking up space on my futon, and maybe I’d favorite a tweet every so often out of nostalgia, but I thought they had lost their luster. The Soundcloud description for the live version of “Web” is: “You asked, you got it. Thee Oh Sees captured in their natural habitat.” And by the sound of it, like any good pack of wild animals, the band sounds comfortably dangerous in their environs.