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Firewater Goes International at the Black Cat

September 20, 2012

During Firewater’s set at the Black Cat’s Backstage room on Monday night, frontman Tod A. repeatedly addressed the audience as “Baltimore and Washington.” It felt like a possibly unintentional acknowledgment of the fact that, though the band has always drawn enthusiastic crowds in Baltimore, they skipped it over on this tour in favor of our neighbor to  the south. Nevertheless, it was a show worth making the trek to the capital for, as Firewater demonstrated once again what an invigoratingly unique band they are, after an enjoyably atmospheric set by the D.C. instrumental band Bearshark.

Tod A. formed Firewater in the mid-’90s from the ashes of his previous band, Cop Shoot Cop, drawing together influences and backing musicians from far flung locations like the Middle East and Asia. Those eclectic sounds provided exotic window dressing for the acerbic humor and gritty noir imagery of his anthemic songs, though for a time that flavor started to drop away from the band’s albums. Then, the globetrotting side of Firewater returned in a big way on its last two albums, 2008′s The Golden Hour and International Orange, which was released last week. The latter was recorded in Istanbul and Tel Aviv last year during the Arab Spring, and carries an appropriately revolutionary spirit.

Those two most recent albums dominated Monday’s setlist, and the songs uniformly sounded far better onstage than on record, from the opening “The Monkey Man” to the final song of the night, an absolutely explosive “This Is My Life.” Though their early albums remain their best, Firewater are an even better live band now than they were ten years ago. The current six-piece lineup includes Johnny Kalsi, who plays an Indian dohl drum, and a trombonist, both of whom played without amplification so loudly in the small Backstage room that they lent the whole band an almost imposing physicality. Firewater peppered just four songs from those early albums into the setlist, but all were well chosen. Before the encore, the band finished its set with the swinging, bombastic “So Long, Superman” and the frenetic “Dark Days Indeed,” both among the band’s finest songs and both featuring one of Tod A.’s favorite phrases, “go to hell and hallelujah.”