All rock bands sound the same live. Onstage, studio nuances are stripped away, amplifiers are cranked to 11 and the resulting squall reveals rock ’n’ roll’s essential similarity: three chords and the truth, maaaan. The trick, then, is picking the right three chords — writing songs that retain their identity even when reduced to bare essentials. Good rock bands know this, and that knowledge was on full, raucous display during last Saturday night’s triple bill of Wavves, Twin Peaks and Steep Leans at the College Street Music Hall. What the show lacked in subtlety, it made up for in unadulterated, fuck-all spirit — a trade-off I’m happy to accept.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a band have as much fun onstage as Twin Peaks did Saturday night. Having spent the summer soaking in the layered guitar parts and surprisingly tender harmonies of “Wild Onion,” the Chicago band’s most recent album, I entered the theater hoping to be transported back to July. So I was at first disappointed to find that the band had apparently neglected to hire a sound engineer given the undifferentiated wall of noise emanating from the stage. “Fuck the vocals!” yelled singer-guitarist Cadien Lake James at one point, finally giving up after struggling all night to make his voice heard. But my initial annoyance gave way quickly when faced with the sheer joy Twin Peaks brought to their performance.
Wearing goofy, trash-‘stached smiles and looking no older than high school kids, the band tore through an energetic set that paired old favorites (“Boomer”) with choice cuts from “Wild Onion” (“Makin’ Breakfast,” “Flavor”). James, tongue hanging out of his mouth and shaggy hair flying, headbanged with such force that I worried he might get whiplash. Drummer Connor Brodner, whose hulking figure made his drum set look like a toy from Fisher-Price, beat the living shit out of his kit until he finally broke his ride cymbal and had to call a time out, at which point the rest of the band launched into a spontaneous cover of “Lean On Me,” with guitarist Clay Frankel instructing the audience to “check out this fuckin’ solo.” We happily complied.
Despite the solo, “Lean On Me” was a throwaway — something that couldn’t be said about the rest of Twin Peaks’ performance. Sure, it was sloppy, and sure, the guitars didn’t sound like they do on record. But it didn’t take me long to stop caring because whatever the shortfalls of their live show, Twin Peaks know how to pick their three chords. Their music is unassuming and catchy, vaguely nostalgic but at the same time a great day-drinking soundtrack, and the band’s easygoing but hard-rocking attitude is just as endearing live as it is on record.
“Nothing lasts forever!” Frankel (and the entire audience) howled during “Making Breakfast” — “but don’t let it get you down!” Twin Peaks are hardly the first indie rockers to pair wistful lyrics with shimmery guitars (see Estate, Real, Demarco, Mac and Pavement), but to craft something new from such a well-worn trope requires talented musicians who don’t take themselves too seriously. And judging by the tongue-in-cheek video for “Making Breakfast” in which Frankel dances and bobs his head while grilling coffee, smoking cigarettes and singing the song’s melancholic lyrics, Twin Peaks seem to fit the description.
Compared to Twin Peaks, headlining act Wavves seemed like consummate professionals, which says something, given that frontman Nathan Williams claims the four-piece band can go through 100 beers and two bottles of Jameson in an evening. Playing one of their last shows before the Tuesday release of their fifth album, “V,” the San Diego beach-punks (Californian culture is so weird) pummeled the frantically moshing audience with what to me sounded like one extremely long but enjoyable Phrygian-modal song (Phrygian is Greek for “that minor-key sound that Wavves uses”). Given that it’s already raw and guitar-heavy, Wavves’ music translates to the stage with ease. And Williams’ crew seems to purposefully streamline their sound when playing live, toning down the feedback and making for an almost fratty, Green Day-esque pop-punk experience: The merch booth was selling Wavves snapbacks and football jerseys, which attendees wore without a trace of irony.
Most of the seething mosh pit masses would probably take offense at my comparing Wavves to an act as gauche as Green Day, but I mean it as a compliment. Wavves’ hook-laden set, highlighted by “King of the Beach” and “Demon to Lean On,” was accessible even to a casual fan like me — the measure of a good rock show. And Saturday night was a Rock Show in the purest sense. Too beery and satisfying for a microgenre, the music of Steep Leans, Twin Peaks and Wavves can only be called rock. None of the three bands displayed a hint of pretense or angst; none seemed to care much for stage gimmicks or production value.
That spirit found favor with the audience, who by halfway through Twin Peaks’ set had begun hoisting crowd surfers towards the stage, where they were invariably rebuffed by security guards. But the show’s defining rock ’n’ roll moment wasn’t thanks to the crowd. It came courtesy of Steep Leans’ guitarist who wandered piss-drunk onto the stage towards the end of Twin Peaks’ performance and proceeded to dive into the audience, forcing a security guard to wade in after him. For me, that moment captured the essence of Saturday’s show, and it was appropriate that it came during Twin Peaks’ set. Wavves were the headliner, established but for that reason less exciting; Twin Peaks were the up-and-comers, young and unpredictable, capable of brilliance or self-destruction but sure to bring frantic energy to either. On Saturday night, they chose the former.