On the night of October 7, 2016, Cain’s Ballroom in Downtown Tulsa was far too empty. After the doors opened, the thirty or so of us who had lined up outside began to shuffle inside. Someone asked to bum a lighter. The bouncer scanned our tickets. We were in.
The lights were on, someone had music playing from their “Indie Rock Playlist” on Spotify over the speakers. Grabbing the opportunity, we all staked our claims up against the stage, unwilling to move in the fear that our great spot may be taken. Thirty minutes later a collection of kind-of-odd looking dudes came out and began tinkering with the instruments onstage. What was originally mistaken as the Cain’s crew setting the stage up for the opener actually was the opener: Jock Gang.
Their set began and my ears were immediately blown. All I could hear was a soft squeal that was slowly rising in pitch, and I loved it. I covered my ears in panic and admiration all at once as I gasped at the noises these weird-looking dudes on stage were making. Jock Gang is what I would call harsh-art-noise rock. Two guitarists, a drummer, a bassist, and a percussionist made up the lineup of the band that night, and although there were only a handful of apathetic-looking people in the crowd, Jock Gang seemed to really enjoy themselves up on stage.
It was like an assault on the senses. Every atom in my body told me to run from the monstrosity that was performing, but I couldn’t help but love it. Harsh, extremely loud guitar-driven noise reverberated throughout the room to the point that you might feel confined and constricted by it, like it was going to wrap around you and choke the life out of you. The rhythm section was on point, something to easily bob my head to as the noise spiraled ever-upward. Towards the end of their set there was a particularly good song that included a sort of call-and-response between the two guitarists. The only regret I had about the set was that I couldn’t hear the vocals. I could barely even make out that there were organic noises being formed from the mass of sound. Eventually, though, the group left the stage.
Another half-hour of silence ensued. More people had begun filing in; the previous number of occupants had doubled. The smell of marijuana became scantily detectable. Eventually a sort of quaint woman walked out onstage. I made the same mistake of assuming that she was part of the Cain’s stage crew, but when she grabbed a stool and sat down with an acoustic guitar I was proven wrong yet again.
It was Aldous Harding, a singer-songwriter from New Zealand. The previous set had all our ears ringing, so whoever had the idea to put a soft acoustic set next was an absolute genius. Harding herself seemed to be having a hard time initially. As she strummed her guitar and played her first song — alone, just her guitar and her voice — she seemed to twitch and stutter at points. I kept hearing murmurs of “She’s totally on something.” As her first song ended a stage attendant tapped her by the shoulder so he could fix something on her microphone, causing her to jump. She was extremely timid, embarrassed almost.
Yet, as the set went on, she opened up more and more. Her songs began to have more power, eliciting this visceral sense of freak folk. She would shudder and shake at emotional points in her songs. Long, high notes were paired with her eyes grotesquely rolling back into her head. Eventually another touring member came out to assist on keyboard, and by that point she had grown completely comfortable with us, going so far as to ask “Can you guys see through this?” referring to her shirt. We could. “Good,” came the response.
Eventually, though, that set ended too. Another half hour passed before the lights dimmed. The in-between-sets music was turned off and a wave of silence filled the room. Figures began rustling around on stage, messing with guitars and wires. Eventually the lights came back on to reveal every member of Deerhunter except the eccentric frontman Bradford Cox assembled on stage. As the first song began, however, he made his entrance. Dressed like John Lennon from the neck up with a long-brimmed hat and those trademark glasses, he deviated a bit from that look with the almost Air-Force-like jumpsuit he was wearing.
Then he began singing. “Fading Frontier,” Deerhunter’s latest album, has been receiving a fair amount of flak for being a little too vanilla and uncreative. It translates to the live stage, however, with an excellence that I can’t begin to describe. While the same mixing problems from earlier with Jock Gang were still present — i.e. the vocals couldn’t be heard — the songs were recognizable at face value. As the band got more into it and into it the fade-outs dragged on and on in thick walls of noise, oozing with a backing rhythm that the absolutely in-sync drummer and bassist never ceases to provide. The set was absolutely amazing, to put it bluntly. It was completely unrecognizable from anything the group had ever recorded in a studio.
It was over way too quickly, though. The encore did come, however, and legitimately lasted longer than the original set. It was where Deerhunter was unafraid to get crazy with it and there was never a moment where a noise wasn’t being made. Between the heavily altered guitars and the warped saxophone, it became clear just why noise-rock was a genre. The energy behind it was incredible. The crowd had grown to a ripe 300 heads by now, and had they not all been there I feel as though I would have regressed back a few evolutionary stages with just the movements I would have made in dance. And that is a very good thing.
The encore dragged and dragged, prompting the drummer to even leave the stage prematurely, but Bradford took over for him. Before the night was over he had sung, played guitar, drummed, and played the keyboard. He may be the best showman I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing and his show left me so stunned that I took only one line of notes in my phone for later reference: I will remember that.