May 18, 2010
The Ottobar, Baltimore, MD
Thee Silver Mount Zion is an amazing band that pushes the possibilities of music to the point that they are hard to define. While post-rock seems to be the most common pigeonhole, even that term's undefined, forward-focused nature seems woefully inadequate. Frankly, before this show, I could appreciate SMZ's albums more that I could enjoy them. Are they one of today's best bands? Yes. Do I play them often? No.
Because their music is both esoteric and unpredictable, I wasn't quite sure what to expect other than to experience the music in the freer atmosphere of a live show. And freer it was, only in ways I never expected. The performance was musically stellar. They bring their classical-rock-avant-garde amalgam and open it up, alleviating the claustrophobia of even a tiny club. They're tight, but not wooden; perfect, yet not cold. There are few shows at any level that are musically on par with an SMZ show.
The real surprise, though, was how warm and human the experience was. I have never been to a show where meandering between song banter hasn't disrupted the flow. With SMZ though, it's part and parcel of what they do. In fact, the talk, the dialog if you will, adds context to the music, not as a description for those who don't get it, but as a deeper journey for those who do.
Efrim's banter took on an impromptu quality as he took questions from the audience. Sometimes the responses were funny, hilarious even at times, but most telling were the questions he answered about more serious topics. "Should Quebec secede?" one called out. His response detailing how people are best served in families and small communities and how nations have become obsolete didn't come from the ivory tower, it wasn't preachy. Instead, it spoke directly to all of us in ways that we could understand and appreciate. It is that sense of community that makes little rock clubs so great and little musical collectives so exciting and in that context, we understood SMZ, and ourselves, just a little bit better. "Why have hope?" came another voice later in the show. Efrim replied, "What else can we do? Despair? That's just stupid," again spelling out the thing that makes us and music and being together beautiful. That hope finds beauty in what is rather than trying to construct something else, yet also retains an optimism for what could be. Another voice wanted to know, "Why Nina Simone?" "Because she got fucked over. Because she's beautiful and true," was the response, along with, "When you don't believe in God, you have to make up your own saints." Why, I wondered would someone so in tune with hope and beauty and the intangible amazement of life, not believe in God? I didn't call out my question and perhaps I should have, because I'm still puzzled. Or perhaps what Efrim said was enough. For me, it wasn't an expression of atheism, but an expression that we all need things we don't understand and can't fully explain, things that transcend empirical facts and objective laws. SMZ, it seems, may be just one of those things.
On another note, the opportunity to see the opener, Baltimore's The Water, shouldn't be missed. This two-piece had the remarkable ability to rely heavily on effects, especially with both members covering multiple tasks on each song, and remain organic. While looping their own live samples, they moved seamlessly from guitar to drums or keyboard to guitar in a way that was dynamic and exciting and they were a great lead-in to the unexpected.