16 Horsepower – Schubas (Chicago, IL)
Spooky. The Appalachian mountains are pocked with caves: Deep, shallow, public, secret. In the wind and rain you can imagine an anguished Elijah standing at the mouth of his cave, raging against the will of God that so afflicted him with unwelcome prophesy.
Half a song late into 16 Horspower’s set was something like that. Eyes adjusting to the cavelike darkness first make out light falling on fair hair in a pink spot like a bloody halo. David Eugene Edwards wrestles a wheezing bandonian in a stranglehold meant for the angel of God or the angel of death or the devil himself. Bob Redick’s upright bass is amped perilously, just shy of exploding, and the slight kit of the Frenchman, Jean-Yves Tola, lays under it all a faintly voodoo groove.
Edwards hollers chants over his banjo like a Turret’s victim clutched by a vision you can’t share. Lyrics patch fragments depicting fear of an angry God, restitution well earned, unspeakable conflicts of the flesh, of loathing and carnality, and a yearning for love’s redemption. I want to rush the stage and put my arms around him, tell him Christ died for his sins and it’s all going to be okay now. But what’s the use: I’m Congregational, he’s Church of the Nazarene. He’s not kidding about the sackcloth and ashes.
Edwards’ moaning slide skulks the guitar over minor-key changes as the banjo tech lurks just offstage readying first one banjo, then the other, like fatted calves. The music is original magic, moving down unexpected corridors, changing tempos between and even within songs to keep you uneasy, sustaining tension with harmonies only occasionally resolving.
Memorable moments: “Haw”, a rough-hewn favorite from the EP; “I Seen What I Saw”, the new CD’s opener, a harrowing tale of being thrown from a horse while trying to escape a hard truth; “Ruthie Lingle”, (“Seduce me, Samantha; take me home”); “Heel on the Shovel” (“On your rotten bones I’ll raise yellow daisies for my true love’s hair); “Shametown”, with its wicked tempo shifts; “Straight Mouth Stomp”, its lighthearted opening bars the sugar for the medicine; “Black Soul Choir” (“No man ever seen the face of my lord / Not since he left his skin / He’s the one you keep cold on the outside girl / He’s at your door, let him in”).
You can have your sex, your drugs, your rock ‘n’ roll. This man’s struggle with his maker is all of these, and often more interesting — if not for its sheer intensity, then for the novelty of its setting, like a cave dripping disfiguring ooze onto lifeless grotesque forms, stalagmites only violence can dislodge.
“For this people’s heart has dulled, and their ears are hard of hearing.” (Isa. 6.10)