David Grubbs, 'An Optimist Declines' from An Optimist Notes the Dusk (2008)
This show is the first time I've been sitting down in Whelan's, with candles in little glass jars, jazz-club style, and beermats on the table. David Grubbs was listed in The Ticket as 'Rock-pop experimentalist. Recommended'; I knew him before from appearances on Codeine's The White Birch, from (pre-Slint) band Squirrel Bait, as well as Bastro; and his latest solo album garnered considerable praise in the Prisonship's best-of. Armed with those recommendations and connections - though Gastr Del Sol passed me by, insofar as bands from past decades can be said to have done so - I still wasn't sure what the show would sound like, apart from that track from his album above.
The set-up was sparse: an amp on top of a case with a mic in front of it, and another mic in front for vocals. Support was from Debutant from Aberdeen, an impressive singer-songwriter with a penchant for heavily-delayed post-rock guitar, building up from quiet chords to full-on looping ear damage. The show was promoted by Forever Presents, who brought Dan Deacon and Matmos to Dublin last year, and gave respective support slots to Jape and Si Schroeder, the latter my favourite Irish proponent of the shoegaze-y post-rock guitar style. Here, though it was a bit one-man-band Mogwai at the very end, on the whole his set was varied and interesting, and very enjoyable to listen to.
It didn't prepare you much for Grubbs, and it's hard to know what would. Obviously the context was the same - one man + electric guitar; but the content of the performance was quite different. In fact, if you were doubting the versatility of the guitar as an instrument, this would have been the show to go to. Personally I don't know much, if anything, about the technique of guitar-playing, but as with all art, I know what I like. And I liked David Grubbs.
That's not to say that the show was all rapt adoration of his axemanship. He could have played a full set of slowcore guitar, all spaces and reverbating chords, and it would have been amazing. However, he didn't, and the performance gained from being challenging. Combining stoner rock (echoes of Earth and Grails) and slowcore (especially Codeine) with bluesy riffing, the set built up through a diverse range of songs including 'An Optimist Declines', with its affecting vocal cadence and heavy guitar; through more pop-oriented folk and Americana, but still imbued with the slowcore ambience, such as 'Eyeglasses of Kentucky'; and concluding with a lengthy instrumental which seemed to blend the sounds of stoner rock guitar with those of a banjo and an ambulance siren.
I picked up the album from him at the edge of stage after the show, too. It doesn't disappoint either, but it's still quite challenging. Reading the press one-sheet (pdf), there's an interesting paragraph which says
"Much continues to be written about the end of the album and its splintering into the MP3dom of individual songs. An Optimist Notes the Dusk is at one and the same time an album and a collection of splinters. There is no contradiction. Do we dare suggest it sounds very 'playlist'?"
The album is just six tracks, which can be either described as varied or incoherent (if you wanted to be negative), without getting into Zen-like oppositions. Opener, and easy stand-out, 'Gethsemani Nights' is very reminiscent of the earlier For Carnation, though here the guitar, while still as (largely) clean and sparse, is more insistent, heavier in its tread, like a fastidious bluesman; and behind it a trumpet - by Nate Wooley - somewhere between Abilene and Human Bell. It's slowcore with an extra weight, an initially challenging further dimension.
(Just trying out posting in Trebuchet. Let me know if you'd prefer reading in a serif font)