Concert Review: Godspeed You Black Emperor! & Bardo Pond (March 18, 2003, Omaha, NE)

The balance between the two extremes of madness and beauty gives Godspeed’s music its emotional impact.

There was something strangely poetic about seeing Godspeed You Black Emperor! on the eve of war. Godspeed’s music has always been synonymous with apocalypse and struggle, at least for me. But as the lights dimmed and the band’s string section slowly began to swell, a single, scratchy word appeared on the screen behind them: “HOPE.” It flickered like a candle caught in a sudden draft, and yet it was the hope in Godspeed’s towering music that came shining through that night.

The band opened with a new song titled “The Albanian,” and its Middle-Eastern textures felt somewhat fitting given the current world situation. Then it was off to more familiar territory, beginning with material from Yanqui U.X.O. I’ll confess that Godspeed’s latest album didn’t do a whole lot for me, but it took on a brand new life in concert. Live, “09−15−00” and “Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls” (or “12−28−99” and “Tazer Floyd” according to the setlist) have a much more aggressive and dynamic edge to them, with “Tazer Floyd“ s climax shaking the club to its foundations.

But what I was really waiting for were the opening strains of “Storm,” the first track from Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven (my fave Godspeed album). In my humble opinion, this might be the most triumphant song Godspeed has committed to tape, a glorious and surging call to arms. This is truly “war music,” but not for any mere worldly conflict. Rather, this is music for a war waged against hopelessness, bitterness, and doubt.

Although the band avoids the topic, I find that it’s nearly impossible not to attach a spiritual significance to Godspeed’s music. That’s especially the case during “Storm“ s second movement (titled “Gathering Storm”), which takes its cue from “Amazing Grace.” Against better judgment, it was at this point that I took out my earplugs, figuring that some temporary hearing loss was a small price to pay for experiencing this music as purely as possible.

I think it was at this point that I closed my eyes and experienced a brief synesthetic moment as the band’s massive sound became a searing, white-hot light. I’ve been to many sonically overwhelming shows (Sigur Rós, Lift to Experience, Ester Drang), but Godspeed easily takes the cake. Make no mistake, they were loud — louder than loud, in fact. The sort of loud that military personnel (and soon, Iraqi citizens) experience when that 21,000-pound MOAB lights up the sky. The sort of loud that provokes all manner of doomsday imagery, from mushroom clouds and trench warfare to demolished buildings and desert wastelands (some of which could be seen in the films that accompanied the band).

But wrapped in all of that darkness lies a deep beauty. As massive as their sound was, I was amazed that I could hear the tiny little filigrees and soft touches that temper Godspeed’s darker corners. There were the mournful string arrangements that served as segues between each song’s movements; the graceful, tremeloed bass that brought a song down gently; and the fragile guitar notes that formed the unlikely foundation for “Dead Metheny“ s stunning climax. Even as the band worked on creating a squall of such magnitude that it could violate some international treaties, those small bits and pieces could still be felt at work, guiding and shaping the clamor.

After a short break (well deserved after a two-hour set) the band came back on stage for their final song. Silence, and then the rants of a madman came over the club’s PA. Over the course of 20 minutes or so, the band delivered a scorching performance of “Blaise Bailey Finnegan, III.” It had been awhile since I listened to Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada and I’d forgotten how powerful this song was. Finnegan launched into one anti-government rant after another, described his personal arsenal — if only Michael Moore had run into this guy while shooting Bowling for Columbine — and pronounced doom and gloom while Godspeed’s haunting and triumphant music provided the backdrop.

It might sound a little odd on paper, this juxtaposition of madness and beauty. But it’s this fine balance between the two extremes that gives Godspeed’s music its emotional impact. Godspeed’s music travels through great chasms of darkness, but there is always that single, trembling word — “HOPE” — at the center of it all. And the surrounding darkness serves only to make it shine all the brighter.

I’d like to say that Bardo Pond started the evening off right and helped set the mood for Godspeed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. My friends and I spent most of Bardo Pond’s set exchanging stupefied glances and smart-alecky remarks, anything to help us get through 40 minutes of clumsy, lumbering psych-rock. Afterwards, we struggled to come up with a fitting description for what we’d just seen, finally arriving at “a very, very drunk Mogwai fronted by a very, very stoned Hope Sandoval trying to cover Black Sabbath but only remembering four of the chords.”

In all fairness, there were some nice aspects to the music, namely Isobel Sollenberger’s mournful violin and exotic-sounding flute. However, they (along with the audience) were buried under layers of boring riffs, tar-like distortion, meandering solos, and plodding rhythms. The band’s final song felt like a relief if only because they picked up the tempo by about 25%. But like every other song in the set, it was too loud and too long… and nothing more.