Altos: Record Release Party, Stonefly Brewing Company, 3/10/12

Posted 03/12/2012 by cal

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We humans are selfish creatures. We like what we like, whether it’s what excites us or what we’ve become accustomed to. I don’t really like Stonefly--the beer they make there, the food, the ambiance (aside from some pretty sweet paintings on the wall in the back corner). I’m a spoiled Milwaukee snob, and I’ve become accustomed to the beer and food that other places make, and the atmosphere of holes in the wall I’ve crawled into and out of more often. I hadn’t even been in Stonefly after dark since it was called Onopa except to use their ATM a couple of times. So I thought it was an odd choice for Altos’ record release party, but I’m sure they had their reasons, and as almost any music freak can say, I’ve seen some of my favorite shows in bad venues; it’s the music that matters.

I can’t speak for everyone who came out for this packed Saturday night show, of course; for some folks, it’s the socialization that matters. Early on in the evening, it was almost impossible to tune out the chatty crowd. During Christopher Porterfield’s brief but engrossing set, as annoying red laser lights from a wastoid novelty projector above the entrance danced around the room, I couldn’t stop imagining that the dots were sniper sights preparing to pick off gabbing hippies and jackasses. And then I’d remind myself that that’s not a nice thing to think at all. It’s tough to turn the mirror on yourself and acknowledge that you’re actually being uptight and self-righteous, and being in this Stonefly crowd was a good exercise in letting go.

Then, when storyteller Jim Winship came onstage accompanied by a few Altos, the experience became an experiment on another level. It seemed clear that the Altos couldn’t have expected the crowd to be silent and attentive as Winship told his lengthy story, preceded and punctuated by brief instrumental and vocal interludes. I got caught up in the tale a couple times, but it was a losing battle; the crowd only got louder as the story went on, and once I realized that I’d missed a good chunk of it anyway, what was the point of paying attention? What was the point of this at all? Surely the participants realized in advance that an alcohol-fueled Saturday night Riverwest crowd wasn’t going to give its full attention to this. The juxtaposition of Winship’s earnest words and the drunken crowd and Erin Wolf’s beautiful singing and the distracting red dots…hold on a second: maybe that is the point…

I thought back to past (Group Of The) Altos performances I’d attended, and I realized that a relatively inattentive crowd was a factor at every single one. It’s almost as if the band itself is a sociological experiment, pitting the music against the crowd, because a dialed-in, sympathetic crowd is too easy. The musicians even contribute, talking amongst themselves during portions of the songs when they’re not playing, smiling and interacting with friends in the audience, which would seem to break the spell of the mostly somber music. And somehow, the music never suffers; it’s only preconceptions and expectations that might harm the experience, because composure is pure bullshit every time, a common crutch for bands whose music can’t stand on its own. Of course, now that Altos have all these stunning, powerful songs, they eventually drown out and, in the long run, usually silence the crowd; this wasn’t always the case. Tonight, particularly with the Winship segment, they were testing the limits of even their friends and staunchest supporters, and this stubborn display of not-compromising was inspiring even if I couldn’t completely take it in. Maybe I’m the only person who has had this impression; I don’t presume to project these intentions onto the band, but oftentimes great art has the ability to reach people on unintended philosophical or intellectual levels.

Altos’ greatest impact still, though, is an emotional one. It’s music that might move anyone--to joy, to fear, to confusion. I keep seeing Explosions In The Sky mentioned as a comparison, which I find ridiculous; first of all, that band is little more than a Mogwai ripoff, and secondly, Altos’ music isn’t structurally or sonically similar to either of those bands, really. The two bands that most often come to mind when I hear the Altos are Tortoise and Ulver, two other bands too stylistically diverse to pin down. There are definitely shades of post-hiatus Earth and mathy guitar elements reminiscent of Fugazi. But ever since Altos added vocals to the mix, their music has taken on a character all its own, and not just because of the singing; the songs got better and the arrangements more unique and the musicians seemingly more psychically in tune with each other.

To boil down my myriad of thoughts and memories from Saturday night: it had to be the best performance by the band I’ve seen yet, but I’ve said that at least the last three times. I keep coming back partially because I always discover new things, like the sometimes crazy counter-rhythms of Tom Duffey’s drumming that would throw lesser musicians completely off their concentration. And also because Altos’ music satisfies so many of my personas--the punk, the progger, the post-rocker, the 9th-grade show choir kid. The screening of the Sean Williamson-produced video for the band’s “Sing (For Trouble)” was certainly one of the most captivating portions of the evening. Some record release shows are just shows; this was a celebration, and despite the often ominous nature of the music, a joyous one. Maybe I was the only one analyzing the whole thing as an artistic statement, but while Altos performed I was transfixed and at times shaken, as usual; a lesson in music overcoming all distractions that I’m still learning.

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