Slint – Chicago – The Metro, IL – 2005-03-25

Where: Chicago – The Metro, IL.

When: 2005-03-25

Slint’s seminal 1991 album, Spiderland, is such a singular musical event that you forget about things like band members, scenes, and music styles. Anyone who’s heard the album understands its primal creep, its monolithic surge. There are only two images anyone ever associates with the album: the creeping spider on the back of the disc (ahem, album) and the by-now-iconic cover photo that shows each band member’s head peeking out of the water. Even this photo, though, which gives a pretty clear shot of each band member’s face, fails to truly identify the band. Instead, it’s the ghoulish pose of four old-world souls, their youthful heads forever disconnected from their bodies.

It doesn’t occur to you, then, until the band takes the stage Friday night at Chicago’s Metro that singer/speaker/guitarist Brian McMahan might be taller than guitarist David Pajo. That the replacement for bassist Todd Brashear would look like Horatio Sanz trying to mock every long-hair, bar-band bassist of the last twenty years. This is music that for so many years, has had virtually no visual associations.

It is hard, then, to accept the ones that are thrown at you, especially when they’re not what you expected. I don’t know what I expected McMahan, the haunting whisper behind “Breadcrumb Trail,” to be wearing, but it certainly wasn’t a modest baseball-styled long-sleeve t-shirt and blue jeans. I don’t know what hellish instrument I expected Pajo to rip his shrieks from, but it certainly wasn’t a sparkling, dark-green telecaster. C’mon people! These guys are post-rock monsters! They should emerge from some cavernous hole in the ground in dark cloaks and scary masks! The guys that stepped on stage Friday night were middle-aged musicians. They sounded professional, rehearsed, human.

None of these expectations are fair to the band, of course – it’s hardly their fault that a cult of wonder and myth has grown like a malignant sore on their legacy since they disbanded after completing Spiderland in 1991. It’s not fair to expect much of them, other than to show up and play their songs and sound reasonably good doing so. But for so many reasons, Slint’s performance came off more as bizarre performance art spectacle than a rocking reunion of old friends.

Things were odd right from the beginning, when mediocre opening rockers Red Nails announced that they were from Kentucky, Slint’s old stomping ground. Oh yeah – Slint are from a state, and not a particularly interesting one. This is odd, because I’d always thought Slint was from somewhere underground, like a quarry or a mine or a perhaps further down, in the dead-space between tectonic plates. When Slint finally came on, things only got weirder. McMahan spent most of the show on the far left of the stage, facing the far right, barely touching a guitar (only on “Washer” did he both sing and play guitar). Pajo stood center stage, with the rhythm section (including an extra guitarist), shuffling behind them.

After an extended, tense instrumental, the band broke into the chiming, harmonic “Breadcrumb Trail.” For anyone who could put aside the visual oddity of the whole performance, the band sounded fantastic. McMahan’s whisper-speak was appropriately muted, Pajo’s guitar sliced through the mix, every note winding around the next. When Pajo and drummer/guitarist/singer Britt Walford took seats at center stage to perform “Don Aman,” the audience was mesmerized, fully entranced by the layers of guitars, the harrowing story (told by both McMahan and Walford) and the chugging, industrial breakdowns.

The band’s hardcore roots (McMahan and Walford played in famed Kentucky hardcore band Squirrel Bait) came out when McMahan pushed his vocals, grabbing the microphone and screaming, “I miss you” on the exultant set-closer “Good Morning, Captain.” That was all for motion though – the rest of the band, save for a lurch here and there from Pajo – stood basically motionless.

Any discussion of how the band members looked or moved or acted is ultimately a great injustice, because the band sounded fucking great, all night. But for fans – the majority of whom latched onto the band well after they broke up – supplying imagery to music that had once seemed so primal and colossal made for a mixed night, emotionally. For most bands, audiences revel in their humanity: Look, Jack White flubbed a note! Bob Pollard is going gray! Friday show revealed a lot about Slint’s humanity, but it had almost the opposite effect. Our towering post-rock gods were replaced by a bunch of seemingly boring, late-30s men. It was fantastic to see Slint back together again, playing their best work and enjoying it, but they should be careful not to connect with their fans too much – no one really Spiderland was made by human beings.