Big, fat PA systems can make all the difference in a These Are Powers show. Though their ecstatic, tribal art-punk attack would probably be no more at home than at a paint-splattered warehouse with blown-out speakers borrowed from a friend of a friend of the promoter, I'd hate to imagine what the effect would be on the band's cheapo but gloriously huge triggered drum sounds. There are lots of driving elements to the band, but none really hit as hard as the blatantly TR-808-style electro sample on drummer Bill Salas's kick pedal. And at a These Are Powers show, it's all about the drums.
Their slot on this show was an enviable one. The room had sold out early in anticipation of opener Neptune's CD release and it would be These Are Powers' biggest show yet in the Boston in a year that will probably prove to be a pivitol one in their career. Bassist Pat Noecker has been trying to kickstart things in some form or another since leaving the Liars in 2003, first with No Age and now with Powers, and this could be the year that people start paying attention. This band gets a lot of the dirty, grooving dance-punk energy that Liars rocked before they headed to weirder pastures and blows it up to bizarro-world high school pep rally levels.
The rat-tailed Salas ran the show as usual from behind a Frankensteined setup of effects racks, tom drums, electronic pads and a mic he pulls out in between songs to yell through miles of echo chambers. His beats tend toward a sort of punk reworking of the kind of African beats Paul Simon worked with on Graceland, all stripped down and bouncing rolls, sometimes edging into marching beats of The Ex, cutting through sharply with cold samples. With that foundation, everything thrown on top of it has no choice but to feel urgent.
And singer Anna Barie is an urgent performer. Over Noecker's crusty, piercing bass lines that serve double duty as both growling rhythm line and lead melody, Barie shrieks through John Lennon slapback echo on the mic and flings her body and massive head of hair around like a kite in a windstorm. Some circumstances are better for this band than others and a little adversity goes a long way — a few months earlier, across town at the Milky Way, the crowded basement room and eye-level stage gave them something to react to and lent a lot to the band's constant movement and Barie's tendency to bounce out into the audience and climb up on shoulders with a tambourine. Great Scott's higher stage and more conventional setup left the band in a comparatively cushy position. They pushed through anyway, though, calling on maybe a little make-believe spirit and, maybe, a little bit of real showmanship.
There's a nasty threat that all band directors and dance teachers use — "Keep smiling through the show or we'll coat your teeth in Vaseline" — that Barie must have faced in another life. All throughout the show, she would spin around with her face beaming up the ceiling in this sort of rapturous baring of teeth and gums that seemed so out of place at a rock show that it's difficult to even place what it stemmed from. Does it feel that good to be onstage tonight? Who knew! Noecker wasn't far behind — his Ritalin-fueled stiff little kid quasi-aerobics tape dancing makes for a sort of counterpoint for Barie's Diamond Dave high kicks. There must be a class for this somewhere.
These Are Powers is an interesting beast. Like a lot of cut-and-paste art (like Paper Rad or Video Hippos) and even internet video work, a lot of the band's vitality lies in recklessly throwing totally disparate shards of culture at each other and seeing what happens. Noecker's bass is part Lightning Bolt, part disco and part effects-scrambled noise guy who never leaves his basement workshop. Barie picks up a guitar now and then and plays it with about as much attention as she gives to her set of sleigh bells when she picks those up, which is not a lot. And why not throw that club-y kick drum in there? Stripped of all its non-rock cultural implications, there's no denying that the thing is heavy. Add the song where everyone holds up toy motors to their pickups for that whirring, "Poundcake" effect, and you have my second Van Halen reference of the night. Does this work all night long? It's hard to tell. With most bands, a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required — that's why we have stages and lights to set these people up with. These Are Powers generally put on such an audacious show that it can seems like self-parody if you're not totally on board with it yet (which is tough, since self-parody seems like one of their calling cards anyway). As long as the room is on board, though, Powers is capable leading a one-of-a-kind party.