Blame the weatherman. Even though people kept going to Bottom of the Hill’s rear courtyard and disappointingly peering up into the cloudless, snow-free sky hoping for a once-in-a-lifetime show, the real show was going on inside.
After The Downer Party‘s poppy, riot girl-inspired punk rock opened the night, San Francisco’s own Exray’s took the stage. Nominally a duo but performing as a three piece, Exray’s have a unique live setup. Instead of a drummer, their percussion is handled entirely by someone playing an electronic drum machine. Interestingly, for the majority of the set, the “drummer” used naturalistic drum sounds and was playing them almost exactly as a real drummer would. If you were just listening to a recording of these songs, you’d have no idea the drums were canned. The effect live, once the novelty wore off, was similar that that of a band playing with a minimalist drummer but without the added electric crispness that comes from live drums.
The songs themselves were uniformly mellow garage pop. The guitars were jagged but unaggressive. The band’s sparse arrangements highlighted singer Jon Bernson’s uninflected vocal lines and engagingly off-kilter melodic sense. At times the band sounded like a less aggressively amateurish version of Beat Happening fronted by one of the Johns from They Might Be Giants.
Midway though the set, things started getting more interesting when the melodies got more sing-song and drumming started using more synthetic sounding timbres. As this happened, the band sunk deeper into the pocket and finally got the audience moving around.
The thing that’s amazing about NOBUNNY is the extra bit of artistry that goes into the music itself. For example, it would have been enough to see a band fronted by a guy wearing a ragged rabbit mask, a cutoff leather jacket, black underpants, a pair of handcuffs dangling from said underpants and that’s it, dance around like Iggy Pop and close their set with a cover of “Eat It” by Weird Al. But the thing that’s amazing about NOBUNNY, is that the cover emphasized the sharp edges of the song’s riff and transformed into something almost frighteningly savage. This is a band that could easily coast on singer Justin Champlin’s charismatically raucous whirlwind of a stage persona and be successful, yet they go out of their way to infuse each of their nuggets of pop gold with catchy hook after effortlessly catchy hook. The band performs with so much vinegar and bravado that there’s no reason a song like “Do the Fuck Yourself” needed to be certifiable pop gem to get everyone in the strikingly young crowd bounce off the walls.
And bounce they did. As soon as Champlin stumbled onstage from the middle of the crowd, a mosh pit spontaneously broke out and didn’t stop for the entire brief set. People were crowd surfing and stage diving like it was 1994.
The songs themselves are essentially little punk tunes in the style of the Ramones but filtered though 30 years of garage rock. These guys are clearly students of the garage sceneâ€”inserting bits of songs foundational to the garage rock cannon like The Regents’ “Barbara Ann” and The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” into their own original compositions. Their songs all have an undeniable rhythmic pulse, you can’t not dance to them if you tried.
Finally, closing out the night, was Battlehooch. Allow me to tell a story about Battlehooch. I discovered this band a few years ago when they were busking in Golden Gate Park as I was leaving the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. They were dancing around like madmen with tiny portable amps and absolutely nailing a cover of “Super Bad”. It was, as they say, rad. I was in a band at the time and we had a show at a dive bar so far out in The Mission it felt like it was halfway to Santa Cruz and we asked Battlehooch to play with us. Now, we thought ourselves as hot shit musicians. We’d do things like have different band members play parts in different time signatures, throw in perplexing, maddeningly complicated left-field turns – the type of things that bands do to show off the thick meatiness of their chops. Then Battlehooch played. A couple months later the band dissolved and I place the blame directly on the insane amount of ass Battlehooch kicks. In light of Battlehooch’s whip-tight orchestral prog, our musical ego just melted. The band sounds like a cross between The Unicorns and Parliment/Funkadelic. I’ve seen them turn Faust’s avant-garde jazz pastiche “Picnic on a Frozen River” into a stadium-rock anthem and I’ve seem turn Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights” into drunken pub rock sing-a-long.
For my money, they’re the best local band in the Bay Area.
The band ambled onstage with their faces covered in little kid face paint that made them look like nothing so much as overgrown tribe of feral kindergardeners. With a smile and a crack of, “let’s make it snow” the band launched into an especially proggy set. One of the band’s core strengths is making music that simultaneously maddeningly complicated and broadly accessible. You could spend an equally enjoyable time at one of their shows playing “find the one” as you could shaking your ass.
Just as their set was closing, everyone’s phones stared buzzing that somewhere in San Francisco Battlehooch’s threat of making it snow had come true. It wasn’t happening anywhere near Bottom of the Hill, but if there’s any band that could make that happen by sheer force of will, it’s these guys.