When it comes to live rock ‘n roll, I go for the music, the spectacle, the passion and the thrill. For me, when an artist combines great tunes, sonic punch and a rollicking stage act that is visually compelling, well, that’s a damn good night. Simply having a great front man can carry a band – think Rod Stewart with Faces, or David Lee Roth with Van Halen. Anyway, it happens and when it does, it’s magic. But it’s not easy.
Sure, there are plenty of bands with great songs but somewhat less than compelling live shows. You know, bands that basically just come out and play and seem to believe that is enough. I’m thinking bands I’ve seen over the years like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Cars, The Jayhawks, Squeeze, Teenage Fanclub, Bad Company, Collective Soul, Steely Dan, Elvis Costello, and many others. Don’t get me wrong – these are fine shows and I enjoyed them, but they weren’t the shows that you talk about years after. And I think most bands that give a shit fall into this category – good, not great, rock ‘n roll shows.
Then there are bands that come out and grab you by the throat and don’t let go all night, blowing you away with their stage presence or outrageousness, but that don’t have the catalog of songs to carry them to the highest levels. Ever see The Tubes, The Bravery or Foxy Shazam? If so, you know just what I’m talking about. Great stage shows, but less than great songs.
And then there are those that have both. Great songs and performances that entertain you to the hilt. Some do it with overwhelming passion, like the Clash, Springsteen, the Allman Brothers and the Who. Others do it with theatrical productions worthy of Broadway, such as the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Queen, and Coldplay. There are great bar bands who feature charisma galore and confidently know that they are going to walk into the hall and just blow you away. NRBQ, the Bottle Rockets, The Darkness and Ash are examples that fit that bill. And then there are those bands that simply have it all: great entertainers, fantastic songs, rollicking crowds and stage presence galore. You know I’m talking Low Cut Connie, right?
But there are also bands that are just undefinable on stage. They are ahead of their times, doing something different, or breaking a mold that others will exploit for years afterwards. The Ramones. Iggy Pop. Bowie.
What to make of Protomartyr then? This is not your typical rock band and not your typical rock show. I’m not sure if they are great or not. I certainly think that their songs are unique. Punk and heavy metal soundtracks matched with lyrics that aren’t sung exactly. No, they are spoken word songs. Some bands do this for a living – basically writing poetry that is matched up with background music and the “singing” is an afterthought. Dylan, anyone? But Protomartyr is not poetry. These are song lyrics for sure. But because they aren’t really sung, they are sort-of given the poem-backed-by-music treatment except that the music is really, really good. And the song lyrics themselves? Sometimes they are just spoken and sometimes they evolve into chants of anger, sarcasm, despair or simple clear-eyed reality. And often, a particular key phrase is spoken over and over as the song cascades, shifting the meaning of the words and the emotions associated with them as the chant goes forward. Protomartyr is not for everyone.
Their show at Boot ‘n Saddle on a recent Friday night was typical. Boot ‘n Saddle is one of the more unique musical venues in Philly. It’s a two-roomed club, with a cheesy but somewhat fun western-themed bar up front full of hipsters, and then a “venue” behind a vault door in the back. The venue has no bar, no restrooms, no accoutrements of any kind. It is simply a rectangular room with a small stage up front. The stage is elevated about 2 feet off the ground. The room is about the width and maybe double the length of a typical suburban two-car garage. Sporting decent acoustics, it holds about 150 people, making it an intimate space that gives off the vibe of a basement. It’s kind of cool.
Most bands that are worth a damn play larger venues because they can make more money. The Boot is for up-and-coming or no-name bands trying to find an audience. And also for bands like Protomartyr who are talented but clearly not into this for commercial acclaim. I love bands like that – “yeah, if we make it, great, but if we don’t, that’s cool, too, because this really matters to us.” Don’t you wish you felt that way about you do for The Man every day?
Protomartyr has no roadies – they set up for themselves – and they don’t sport rock music typicals, like costumes, pyrotechnics, call-and-response-fist-pumping lyrics, or guitar heroes. But they are fantastic musicians making complicated and technically challenging music that is really well done, and then letting Joe Casey’s lyrics lie on top of that musical mass. I have to tell you that Alex Leonard, the drummer, is perhaps the best rock drummer I have seen all year. He is great – playing really complicated percussion rhythms and never missing a beat. He is unbelievably good.
Joe performs in a business suit sans the tie. He looks like a middle-aged insurance salesman or something, particularly when he is standing up on stage swigging the last of a can of beer and then looking at the crowd with his paunchy gaze. He is Everyman. Yet he’s not. Because he then snarls and spits out these chanting and challenging lyrics. He doesn’t sing them. He recites them, then turns them into mantras of emotions. I really like them, but I haven’t quite figured out why.
The crowd was what you would expect. A bunch of weirdos like me. Seriously. Who are these people? Why are there some dudes with closely cropped hair and huge beards, standing next to women with gray and blue streaks in their otherwise middle-aged hair styles, bumping up against regular looking male millenials who could have just put down the joystick on their Play Stations? Why were some of the women in skirts like it’s a sock-hop or something, while others are dressed all in black showing off cleavage like Elvira? An odd mix? Damn, right. And I think that all goes back to the band – who and what the hell are Protomartyr? What are they up to? And why do I see them whenever they come to town, dragging along some poor soul so that I’m not alone in my quest?
I don’t know where to put Protomartyr in my categories of rock shows. I clearly like them. I think they are on to something, but others may never grab the mantle and run with it. Maybe they are just too ahead of their time or maybe there will never be a time that adopts them. That happens in rock, too. Bands that are experimental sometimes start a movement, but more often, they fade away and remain cult classics, the musical equivalents of films like Zipperhead. Give Protomartyr a listen. Play them a few times. If you don’t like their gig, that’s cool, at least you were open-minded enough to try. If you like it, explain why to me so that you can help me figure it out.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.