Show Review: Three Nights with Godspeed You! Black Emperor

by Jonathan Pirro on February 22, 2011

One of the few "official" photos of the Montreal collective

One of the few "official" photos of the Montreal collective

The weather on Saturday night in San Francisco was leaning on the side of foreboding by the late afternoon hours, with dark clouds ahead, scattered moments of showers and mist, and a vastly cold wind that was a stark contrast to the bright crispy winter days that the Bay Area had seen recently. By the time the sun dipped beneath the horizon on Saturday night, the cold and wet had amplified themselves and were coming to rest on a long line of people huddled together outside of the Warfield Theater. A large group of these people would brave the dry yet even colder evenings that followed at the Great American Music Hall. The weather was most appropriate for the mood and occasion, and for the band that was finally returning to San Francisco for the first time in over seven years: the Canadian post-rock octet known as Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Here were not the sunny glories of Sigur Rós, nor the numbing white noise of Mogwai; this was an experience that foretold the end of the world, the beginning of life, and everything in between, with eight musicians sounding like a symphony from worlds beyond.

Despite the headlining act being the same for each of these three sold-out concerts, the opening bands couldn’t have been further apart in their presentation. Californian experimental metal band Om kicked off the evening at the Warfield, with a combination of droning bass, wailing vocals and monstrous drums. With bassist Al Cisneros (also of doom metal band Sleep) at the helm, the band ripped through a 45-minute set with an intensity that ebbed and flowed in a rhythm that matched well with their headliner. The Oakland trio Date Palms, who opened the first evening at the Great American Music Hall, followed with the same tidal back-and-forth between steady drones and delicate, intricate pieces, although the crowd’s response to their set was slightly more lukewarm, as their performance was far more focused on deep ambient movements, which tended to last for a rather long duration. San Franciscan rockers Sic Alps flipped the scale to the opposite end on the final night, exchanging the gloomy metal and haunting drones for fuzzy, crunchy garage-punk that dissolved into snarling feedback after most of the performances. Of the three opening acts, I was personally most fond of Om, due to the complexity of their set and the sheer strength exhibited by drummer Emil Amos, but Sic Alps’ stripped-down fuzz-fest was a close second.

The format of each of GY!BE’s performances were very similar, quite simple, and incredible in their intensity. Each night, the band members set up their own gear onstage, with only two to three of the members disappearing for a final pre-show break, before returning to join in building the opening number, “Hope Drone”, which was exactly as described: a long, careening, thundering piece that bellowed, roared, and saw each member of the band gyrating furiously at their instruments to create a blissful wall of sound, while the word “HOPE”, scrawled in angry white chalk, flashed across the white sheet above the band. This was how each of the shows began: the brightest light from the film projector across the theater, the musicians bathed in muted red light, barely a glimpse at the audience and not a single word exchanged with them, and the great cataclysmic noise piece that segued into their first “actual” songs.

With songs spanning from ten to sometimes over twenty minutes in length, it was safe to say that the sets would each be long in duration but short on quantity. Each night, the band performed between eight and nine songs, with several pieces — “World Police and Friendly Fire”, “The Gathering Storm”, and “Albanian”, to name a few — appearing on nearly every night of the three concerts. Each song showed the trademark brilliance that GY!BE brings to their work: a small, delicate, achingly slow melody, with members adding elements one by one, and then suddenly shifting the tempo into a much heavier gear, building the song to an unfathomable intensity and filling the room with the volume and density of a hundred musicians onstage, before collapsing back down and dissipating even faster than it was conjured into being. Every single one of the songs was its own world, an entire performance in the time for half of an opening band’s set.

The members of GY!BE seldom swayed in their concentration or precision during each of the nearly-three-hour-long shows. Guitarists Efrim Menuck and Mike Moya held the left side of the stage down with their unearthly guitar wails (caused by scraping screwdrivers against the strings), matched by the precise solo work of guitarist David Bryant and violinist Sophie Trudeau. The rhythm section, led by bassists Mauro Pezzente and Thierry Amar, brought the biggest and fullest part of the sound to each song, with drummers Aidan Girt and Bruce Cawdron trading duties between two separate drumkits and a xylophone. The only sung words were during the final interlude in “The Sad Mafioso”, and were impossible to discern against the massive volume of sound that still hung in the room from moments before. Above the band, projectionist Karl Lemieux played numerous reels of film, depicting windy, desolate landscapes, long drives to nowhere, thousands of printed words, and a long stream of ancient woodcut images; the last set were moved slowly over the projector, causing them to melt from the heat of the bulb in time with the rhythm of the songs.

Even with some consistency to their set, plenty of surprises were in store for the eager fans, who had managed to snatch up every single ticket for the Music Hall shows within minutes, and also cleaned out the Warfield within a week or two. Both songs from the band’s Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada EP were heard multiple times over the course of the late weekend, as well as two thirds of the band’s final record, Yanqui U.X.O. Most of the material was centered around their celebrated classic Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven!, and the crowd responded most eagerly to performances of “Monheim” and the aforementioned numbers that ran all three nights. Each night had a unique piece, as well: the Warfield saw the band playing “Rockets Fall On Rocket Falls” from Yanqui U.X.O.; the final night offered a surprise in the form of the unreleased track “Gamelan”; and the middle night was brought to a close with a magnificent performance of “The Sad Mafioso”.

Each night ended the same way; after a stunning, ear-shattering closing number, the band members continued to play, building up the wall of sound they had crafted into dense loops and massive soundscapes, before departing from the stage one by one, and only returning when all of their equipment had been turned off, and the loops had all finished. There was no encore, and there were little more than waves goodbye. Everyone who came to the show got precisely what they came for: nearly three hours of one of the most incredible live acts that the musical world has ever seen.

These nights demonstrated that the most intense and amazing live performances can still be carried out without aid of spiraling lights, dense machine fog, or any extraneous accessories. Many people in the crowd shut their eyes tight in concentration as the music swirled around them, opening them only when the light of the projector changed and drew them back to the beautiful mayhem happening on the stage. Very few performances leave me completely, utterly drained at the end of them, even from standing absolutely still, and these were definitely some of them.

Will Godspeed You! Black Emperor now take another decade off from the music world, and return triumphantly as they did on this occasion? Or will they realize that the live music scene has been revitalized and it is now one of the greatest eras in which to be performing in concert? Hopefully, the answer leans towards the latter; this is one of the greatest shows I have ever seen, and I wait in rapt anticipation of their return to San Francisco.

GY!BE's setlist from The Warfield

GY!BE's setlist from The Warfield

  1. Lift Yr. Skinny Fists, Like Antennas To Heaven > The Gathering Storm
  2. Murray Ostril: ‘…They Don’t Sleep Anymore on the Beach…’ > Monheim
  3. Albanian
  4. Chart #3 > World Police and Friendly Fire
  5. Dead Metheny
  6. Rockets Fall On Rocket Falls (aka Taser Floyd)
  7. BBF3
GY!BE at the Great American Music Hall, Night 1

GY!BE at the Great American Music Hall, Night 1

  1. Moya (aka Gorecki)
  2. Albanian
  3. Murray Ostril: ‘…They Don’t Sleep Anymore on the Beach…’ > Monheim
  4. Dead Metheny
  5. 9-15-00 (Part 2) (aka 12-28-99)
  6. Chart #3 > World Police and Friendly Fire
  7. Lift Yr. Skinny Fists, Like Antennas To Heaven > The Gathering Storm
  8. The Sad Mafioso
GY!BE at the Great American Music Hall, Night 2

GY!BE at the Great American Music Hall, Night 2

  1. Albanian
  2. Lift Yr. Skinny Fists, Like Antennas To Heaven > The Gathering Storm
  3. Moya (aka Gorecki)
  4. Gamelan
  5. 9-15-00 (Part 2) (aka 12-28-99)
  6. Chart #3 > World Police and Friendly Fire
  7. The Cowboy
  8. BBF3

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff February 23, 2011 at 5:01 am

Nice review.

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Btamulis February 25, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Fantastic review. I saw them in LA this week, and it was definitely the best performance piece I have ever seen. I am curious if the crowd in SF was as into their iphones as the crowd in LA was. We had people all around us, throughout the floor, texting and surfing on their iphones constantly through the whole show. It was jarring and a bit disappointing, but then again this is LA….

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