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Last night’s show at The Black Cat featured heavy dance rock from two bands: one that was amusing for all the wrong reasons, and one that was amusing for all the right ones.
I had never listened to Living Things before this show, so I was not certain what I was in for. “Living Things”: I imagined ungodly quasi-mammals, throbbing and pink and slightly demented. (Like The Hills Have Eyes, or Frankenstein’s Monster—“It’s Aliiiiive!” That sort of thing.) Their set started off unremarkably: heavy distortion, thunderous drum fills, a lead singer with a voice just baritone enough as to be incomprehensible beneath the merciless flogging of power chords. But once the tech crew tweaked the mixing board enough that Lillian Berlin‘s lyrics began to break through the wall of sound, I began to understand.
“And if we stay here tonight, under the moonlit sky, will we breathe in, or will our hearts just fade away?” Berlin wailed. A little maudlin for The Hills Have Eyes, I thought to myself. During the next song break, he said, “This is the first time we’ve been here since Bush fled,” to a smattering of cursory woots. Politics? Hm. Next thing I know, Berlin is gyrating and shouting some phrase ending in the word “peace” while manically flashing a peace sign. “Ya know, John Lennon had it right when he said ‘Give peace a chance,'” Berlin reiterated after the song ended, to those who might have somehow missed the point. My perplexity shifting to annoyance, I looked down at a Living-Things-themed coaster on the cocktail table in front of me. “THIS IS A LIVING THING. PLANT IT!” it said. Turns out the coaster was ingrained with seeds, and would produce sprouts if soaked and buried in soil. As my mind began to process this growing body of evidence, I heard Berlin’s voice back on stage. “This next song is about Wall Street,” he scoffed. “We looooove Wall Street.”
Oh, I get it, I thought with a sigh. “Living Things,” as in Mother Earth, doves, fawns pecking at meadowgrass, delicate hearts, whatnot.
The set continued along the same trajectory: jejune political commentaries carried along by boring chord progressions—loud, droning waves, with nary a guitar solo to break the monotony. Lifeless, animatronic. (Dare I say, parochial?) The amusement came in watching Berlin continue to top himself. At one point, he and his mates chanted a chorus in which they indicted, by way of enumeration, pretty much every three-letter-acronym governmental or corporate entity there is.
The set ended really the only way it could have: with a fight. At the conclusion of the final song, Lillian Berlin’s brother Bosh—the band’s drummer—fired one of his sticks toward the audience and struck Lillian directly in the back of the head. With the guitarists still jamming on the flourish, Lillian ambled dizzily over the drums and kicked them out of joint. Bosh came out from behind the drums and shoved Lillian, who shoved him back, sending Bosh stumbling into Electric Six synther Tait Nucleus?‘s keyboard stack. Off stage, the brothers scuffled briefly before storming toward the green room. Peace, out.
Electric Six, meanwhile, were simply awesome. Frontman Dick Valentine came on stage wearing a red cape with the name of their opening number, “Flashy,” bedazzled on the back. When that song ended, he shed the cape to reveal another cape emblazoned with the name of the next song, “Showtime!”
Valentine proved himself a brilliant showman in all the ways that Berlin wasn’t. Where Berlin would seize about the stage in various dramatic poses, Valentine was a minimalist. With the casually ironic comportment of a stand-up comic, Valentine spent much of the songs squinting into crowd, wearing the sort of smirk you see on the face of a buddy right after he passes gas and before anyone has smelled it. Occasionally, he would wander around during a solo break to pose with his arm around each band member, whale on a cowbell, or perpetrate some purposefully daft dance moves.
Armed with this quirky charisma, Valentine—who looked less like a hyper-masculine god-rocker than a friendly barfly, held the audience captive through 13 songs and three encores (“We did not come here to play 13 songs,” he explained, “we came here to play 16 songs.”) I was wrong about Electric Six: They may not be earnest, but they are not a parody act; they are simply ridiculous, in the most wonderful way possible. Living Things, on the other hand, were so very earnest that their act dissolved into farce long before the brothers Berlin started throwing haymakers.