Unwound | Thalia Hall | 3/7

Thu Mar 09 2023

So you want to devote your life to writing about music, do ya? I can’t blame you. There are however consequences you might not be aware of. Your brain will amass unbelievable gobs of information about musicians over the years. Each bit of information will contribute to a complex emotional impression. It can be overwhelming and sometimes you’ll have no idea why. The network of connections between people and geography and sounds becomes too dense to trace back, yet sometimes your brain will try, as if that would somehow help. Like when they played an old Melvins song on the PA Tuesday night in between bands at Thalia Hall. You know, Jared Warren was in the Melvins, past tense in the sense that any bass player ever fully leaves the Melvins. Fucking Aberdeen, Washington. I still have all these deep impressions of Olympia (where Unwound is from) that stem purely from things I read in books about Nirvana in the ‘90s. I still think first of K Records and how I just couldn’t stand Beat Happening. And I still think about Kill Rock Stars as this singular riot-grrrl detonation.

These labels still exist, though. Calvin Johnson put out a solo album not TOO long ago. And Unwound, despite not being a riot grrrl group, were the first band to actually put out an album on Kill Rock Stars. They broke up in 2002 and KRS has carried on; founder Slim Moon even returned to the helm a few years ago after forsaking the music industry entirely and becoming a minister with First Unitarian Church in Portland! For Unwound, though, the current reunion tour, which began in Oregon in January, is in a sense a tribute run. The band has enlisted Scott Seckington (from side project Nocturnal Habits) to augment on guitar and keys, and Warren is filling in for founding bassist (also lyricist) Vern Rumsey, who passed away in 2020, leaving behind one of the most influential catalogs in the history of independent rock music. Whatever the future holds for the group, these shows are about gratitude for what remains, what we can all still cherish and celebrate, and Unwound’s music is certainly worth celebrating.

I got a ticket for this show as soon as humanly possible, figuring it would be a quick sellout. They ended up adding a second show for Wednesday, with the opening act eventually announced as…Circuit des Yeux! I kicked myself a little; not only could I have avoided bailing on my radio show, I could’ve seen one of the world’s greatest singers. Meanwhile on Tuesday we got…The Hand? Who the hell is that? A band out of Minneapolis, it turns out, which singer/guitarist Zak Sally admitted he’d pulled “out of mothballs” in order to play this show. The only problem was, THEIR bassist, Dale Flattum, wound up unable to make the gig after all. And who else should swoop in and save the day but…Alan Sparhawk?? I’d last seen Sparhawk about a year prior, at Big Ears, with Low (with whom Sally played bass for over a decade). I had already been mentally preparing myself for a return to the festival at the end of this month, going back into the last room I saw Mimi Parker in. Some things are better experienced unprepared, a splash of water in the face. We all have to tough it out together, this life. It’s not just you, alone. We’re connected and we’re still here. Maybe it was best that Alan wasn’t up there playing guitar, that we weren’t out here trying to soak up every drop of that tone again. The Hand was post-punk with the emphasis on punk, not the three-simple-chords aspect but definitely the fast and noisy aspects, and it was amazing to hear and see and feel, all the way through. I wonder if there was a single soul in the room not experiencing a degree of catharsis, at least some subconscious recognition of how the world is small and shrinking and we’re only surviving on the love we give each other.

Unwound wasn’t a bucket-list band for me. I was a Fugazi fan in the ‘90s but most of the post-punk stuff I gravitated towards was either the mathy stuff like Sweep The Leg Johnny or the post-rock stuff like Mogwai. It took Evan Rytlewski’s bandcamp piece on Unwound ( https://daily.bandcamp.com/lists/a-beginners-guide-to-unwounds-otherworldly-post-hardcore ) to jog my memory. Revisiting the catalog, it seemed only a handful of songs had stuck with me over the years. Unwound’s heyday was not the healthiest period of my life. To think I could’ve seen them in the union building my freshman year at Marquette! Presumably in that little cafeteria area where Luscious Jackson played? Damn.

I wasn’t thinking about the past at all once Unwound came onstage. These songs haven’t noticeably aged; bands would be writing songs like these today if only they could. Having never seen Unwound before, the main thing that struck me was that although the band sounds radically different over the years on record, the show struck me as either less eclectic or more unified in purpose than what I was expecting. There was plenty of glorious noise, but at the same time it was like an anthology of the band’s most memorable songs, something that…almost didn’t make sense for this band, but what other option is there? It’s not like there were any BAD options.

That was the only slightly weird impression I had amidst an utter outpouring of mutual gratitude in that room. It’s got to feel good to be out owning these songs again; having them shelved is a disservice to the world, and this crowd felt it. To be gathered in this room together, a stray mask here and there. Let’s keep not taking any of this for granted as long as possible.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at you-phoria.com. He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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