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Butt Stomach Make Noise, But Fail to Nauseate

April 10, 2008

After it spent much of 2007 closed and in temporary limbo, I’d been neglecting to check out the Talking Head since it reopened early last fall. But I finally stopped by April 11, and the place was looking better than ever, with even the air inside the club much cleaner than it used to be thanks to the smoking ban. The occasion was a show by two notable Baltimore side projects, but unfortunately, Smart Growth’s Phil Collins homage was missed at the beginning of the night. And the other, Butt Stomach, enjoyable as it was, wound up somewhat upstaged by two touring acts from Texas, Seth Sherman and Daniel Francis Doyle.

Seth Sherman took the stage with nothing but a guitar, and though he gently sang his set’s first and last songs, most of the time he communicated solely through his instrument. But his grace with it was a thing of wonder: gorgeous slide melodies and intricate finger-picking, with a big, warm low end that practically filled the whole room in a way that acoustic guitars rarely do. It was a simple performance, carried purely on musicianship, conducive to just sitting there, eyes closed, listening to his meandering instrumentals the whole night.

Sherman’s tourmate and fellow Texan, Daniel Francis Doyle, also played as a solo act, although his stage show was a bit more involved. Each song began with Doyle strapping on a guitar, playing a few disjointed riffs while looping them in real time, and layering more guitar parts over each other. Then, he’d put down the guitar, sit down at his drum kit, and furiously bash out a song accompanied by the guitar loops, while singing through a headset mic. These kinds of one-man-band acts have become increasingly common in recent years, so there’s no point in praising Doyle or dismissing him as a gimmick. Instead, what was remarkable was just how unique, complex, and tightly arranged his songs were. The various riffs of a given song, which sounded to be triggered individually either by drum sounds or perhaps a foot pedal, never made sense as he laid down the loops, but then he strung them all together as a song with a rhythm, structure, and lyrics. And even as he ran winded back and forth between instruments, the whole protocol looked perfectly rehearsed, as if Doyle was operating in a private musical language that only he could understand, until it all came together and made sense.

Tuesday’s show ended with the first live performance in quite a while by Butt Stomach, the brainchild of Dan Deacon and Kevin O’Meara of Videohippos. Deacon’s rise to national (underground) prominence in the past year was perpetuated in large part by his reputation as an ecstatic live act. But I’ve always preferred the warped, brilliant bleeps of his records to his somewhat obnoxious concerts, and I was a little nervous that his side project would turn out to be another exercise in forced fun. Thankfully, Butt Stomach was a whole different deal, with Deacon reining in his party-maestro persona and rambling stage banter to improvise the kinds of squealing, pixelated soundscapes he does best, with drumming by O’Meara, who gradually worked his way up from subtle accompaniment to furious tribal rhythms.

Apparently one of the self-imposed rules of a Butt Stomach show is that it should be one long composition, with no breaks until the end. But Deacon, much to O’Meara’s dismay, decided about halfway through the set that he’d found a perfect stopping point, and allowed a moment for applause before launching into a second round of improv. The costumes, theatrics, and novelty that have come to define much of the Baltimore’s underground music in recent years can be great fun sometimes. But on Tuesday, it was refreshing to catch a bill full of skilled musicians plying their trade and offering little else in the way of entertainment value, while managing to be as engaging as ever.

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