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Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Live 3/24/11
Godspeed You Black Emperor!, as they were known at the time, before the exclamation point got bold and migrated west, was my introduction to post-rock, now perhaps my favorite of musical genres. I remember hearing whispers about them on the internet, and eventually got onto Limewire or a program like it - something I haven't done in years and years - and downloaded some of their songs. The first one that I really grabbed onto was Moya!, still one of my favorites, and the song I use to introduce people to them. This was back in 2003, roughly, about a month after they rolled through town on their last tour before a seven year hiatus. It's tough to remain actively interested in a band whose entire discography you've had for five years, so my interest in them faded over the course of those five years, and nostalgia started to do its thing, turning them into an amazing, breathtaking band. I regarded them as giants of post-rock - because they are - and writers of tremendous music - because they are.

What nostalgia helped me forget, though, was that they are a band who seem to have a belief at their core that tedium and suffering are required for the monumental payoff of the crescendo. The climaxes are magnificent, to be sure, but the whole experience is rather tainted by the fact that you have to bear so much just to get to them. Such was the nature of the entire trip to see them, really.

I typically draw the line at two hours of travel for a concert, but I figured hey, this is fucking Godspeed, one of the biggest gaping holes in my list of acts-seen, a supposedly incredible live show, and a band that might never tour again for all I know. I made the four and a half hour trip to see them, though I ended up sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for over an hour, making the commute six hours of tedium each way. I finally made it to the venue - a very nice place, actually - and stood outside in the cold for many a minute waiting to get in. Then I stood in line to buy a T-shirt for about as long. Then I stood in the absolutely packed, shoulder-touching-shoulder venue, waiting for the opening act to come on.

When he finally did, I stood and endured his pointless, ridiculous guitar meandering for roughly forty minutes. Don't get me wrong - he seemed like a nice and sincere man - but it almost embarrassing to watch him get really, really into a guitar solo that I swear to shit was nothing more than him hitting random notes out of key, out of time signature, and out of any semblance of coherence. I mean, hey, I listen to noise music, but I could find nothing of worth in the haphazard notes he was banging out with equally random and ineffective effects. His songs bounced from traditional pieces with fairly standard finger picking and chords to just plain bad songs that further devolved into atonal, uninspired flailing. Someone standing near me cracked a joke about him having smoked seven bowls, and I felt gratified in realizing that I was not the only one who thought that heavy intoxication was the only way anyone could be at all impressed by his music.

So after I endured that, I stood around and waited for the roadies to set up. And then twenty minutes later, the stage went dark, and the low bass drone of a single note came over the PA. I did not time the drone, unfortunately, but I swear to fuck I stood there, feeling more and more oppressed by the droning E (or whatever the fuck it was), as it went on for one minute, two minutes, five, ten, fifteen. No shit, one note for fifteen minutes. I would bet on it. After that, the band slowly filtered onto the stage in the darkness, and then tuned up and joined in on the drone, banging out the same single note for probably another fifteen minutes. I cannot quite begin to tell you how dead and flat my enthusiasm was when they finally began on the first chords of Moya!. The only thing I really felt was fucking relief that they wouldn't be subjecting me to another fifteen minutes of audio torture. At least not until Moya! was over.

The song was pretty awesome, that is for sure. I counted some eight members on stage, down from (I believe) the original / core nine members. They had three guitarists, two bass players (one occasionally on upright), one drummer, one percussionist, and one violinist. When they decide to go at it as a band, they produce just as incredible a wall of sound as that lineup might suggest. During the climaxes, they were enormous. Huge. Grand. It helps, too, that the mix was absolutely perfect. Every instrument was audible, every one of them fit into place. They sounded fantastic.

The problem, once again, is that they feel you have to suffer for those moments of payoff. A ripping chunk of song was followed almost inevitably by the violinist pounding out the same four notes with heavy distortion for five minutes, or by the guitar players making noise with feedback. And, again, I like noise, and I like ambient, and I am okay with sparse music. I am not so interested in the kind of un-atmospheric, uninteresting sound that they spent so much time on stage plodding through.

There is also the matter of their pretension, a characteristic as distinctly GY!BE as their huge lineup and instrumental songs. I now own a T-shirt that is filled with words that are incomprehensible but vaguely anti-government. I don't even know what one of the guitarists looks like, as he sat with his back to the stage the entire time. I only know what Efrim looks like because I've seen him at Silver Mt. Zion shows. Efrim, a guy who, at those shows, is as down to earth and approachable as any front man I've seen, was barely noticeable on stage. There was no lighting, there was no interaction with the audience, they just got up there, played, and left. I have no doubt that this is exactly what they wanted, and I was not at all surprised, but, well, I guess it's just hard to take over two hours of pretentious, dead serious music. Explosions and Mono don't play nearly that long, and Silver Mt. Zion breaks it up. GY!BE, not so much.

The length of the set was the other thing I must complain about. Strange as it seems coming from a guy who drove a combined eleven hours to see them play, I wish they had cut their set shorter. Their set was roughly two hours and fifteen minutes, including the drone at the beginning, and I was hoping for each song to be their last starting at about the hour and thirty minute mark. Of course, they could have played longer than two hours and fifteen minutes for all I know, as I left the theater as soon as the drummer stood up, waved to the audience, and left the stage. I can think of two times that I've left before the musicians I came to see. Godspeed makes it three. And I was not alone in doing so; at first the show was positively cannot-move packed. By an hour and a half, I had significantly more space. When I left the masses near the stage to go sit down on the outskirts, I realized the place was a lot thinner than it had been, and people were exiting with fair frequency. Two hours and change is just a long fucking time to bear the serious, oppressive nature of GY!BE.

The nature of my relationship with GY!BE makes it tough to evaluate the show, objectively or even subjectively. I don't know what I was expecting - something mind blowing, I suppose - but I didn't get it. They sounded great when they decided to, but spent a great deal of time plodding through tedious noise. It was a good show, and they are powerful live, but they are also boring. If you want to see them, you probably should, but you shouldn't consider it mandatory. I'm glad I went, but I wouldn't drive five hours each way again. I wouldn't drive two. In fact, I'm not sure I would drive fifteen minutes.


 
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