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Everything New Is Old Again: Pinback at The Bluebird Theater, Denver, Colorado, 4/2/03 (w/Black Black Ocean and Bunky)

by john wenzel

The Bluebird Theater, a former porno establishment on Denver's seedy Colfax Ave., provided the backdrop for the evening's indie rock festivities. I missed opening act Black Black Ocean because, for some reason, this local band was forced to play a mere 30 minutes after the doors opened. Sheesh. Everyone knows most of the audience is usually somewhere else getting fucked up during the first hour after doors open. What the hell was the Bluebird thinking?

San Diego's Bunky was up next, a geek-rock outfit that tended a mildly entertaining stable of repetitive, ironic songs. This three-piece (two male guitarists and a female drummer-singer) befuddled and ultimately charmed the audience with their cheeky displays of twee/hardcore schizophrenia. When Pinback took the stage, however, it was a welcome change from Bunky's tepid schtick.

Let me preface the meat of this review with a disclaimer: I love Pinback. I saw my first Pinback concert in March, 2002 at the very same venerable Denver ex-porn haven. The band's set featured a number of songs from their recently-released Ace Fu album Blue Screen Life, as well as their self-titled debut LP. As a concert experience, it was everything I hoped for and expected. The high-ceilinged room reeked of weed and cigarettes. The mood was appropriately indie-reverent, hinting at unruly rock behavior but not quite spilling over into drunken bedlam (like, say, any Guided by Voices show). People howled approvingly after each song. I remember thinking how Pinback's challenging, gripping music was being banged out with unusual vigor and speed.

I also remember thinking how difficult it was to discern the songs' complex melodic interplay as they whizzed by at twice their normal tempo, crunched into temporal confines a few sizes too small. It wasn't math rock, or AC/DC wank, or classic rock noodling. Just really, really fast guitar playing. Pinback co-captain Rob Crow, clad in baggy jean shorts and a Public Enemy T-shirt, looked every bit possessed as he hovered over his mic, barely tethered to the ground by impassioned guitar strumming. Zach Smith affected a calm, measured demeanor that easily could have lulled you into thinking he wasn't a musical genius, or that his fingers weren't blurring the neck of his bass at 20 miles per hour. Their prowess was undeniable, but the set was frustratingly brief, packing what seemed like two hour's worth of music into just over 50 minutes.

What little difference a year makes.

For 2003's visit to the Bluebird, Pinback were joined by an additional keyboard player. That was about the only change. The band performed splendidly as a five-piece, fleshing out the synth-laden corners of their music with a neatly orchestral vibe. Still, they rushed through their gorgeous songs like they were late for their own weddings. "Penelope," a crowd favorite (judging from the number of requests it got), was so frenetic I had trouble believing the band was actually playing it themselves. It threatened to stumble over its own intricate picking patterns and smash against the strained bass line. I know it's difficult to match the tempo of every live song to the exact recorded version, but this was ridiculous.

Granted, the first few songs Pinback played probably benefited from the fast treatment. They were mostly pensive ballads and piano-driven vocal showcases that, on the album, tend to drag. And there's nothing like a hasty tempo to enliven a slow, boring track. But when it came time for songs like "Offline P.K." and "Tripoli," the vibe was measurably wounded by the rushed delivery. It's as if the band's patience was completely spent. Rob Crow seemed irritated by the clouds of cigarette smoke (he complained it was hurting his voice) and a couple times took surprisingly huge pulls off a beer between songs (he previously has admitted to an alcohol problem).

Am I asking too much of the band? Probably. It's hard to argue with Pinback's formidable, unique songwriting skills, or their talent and focus as live performers. The new songs they played - rhythmically complex reggae-influenced numbers from their upcoming Touch and Go full-length - were as good as anything I've heard from them. It's just that I found myself wishing the serene, unearthly tone of their albums had been allowed to breathe in concert, instead of stuffed into a too-tight suit of overeager alacrity. I guess it's a bit like asking the genie for a fourth wish.

Issue 13, April 2003 | next article

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