Until this weekend, when I saw the Dandy Warhols play at the Fillmore, I had a really hard time liking them.
A few years back, I watched the documentary Dig!, directed by Ondi Timoner. It chronicles the growth and divergence of two alt-rock bands, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. They came of age in the late 90s, as grunge began fade and the Indie scene started to form. Together they helped to create what is now called the neo-psychedelic genre, mixing elements of 1960s rock and roll with the growing electronica movement.
Ostensibly, it is a comparison of the Dandys' decision to sign with a major record label and BJM's commitment to a music "revolution" free The Man's involvement. Though the film keeps the tension between artistic purity and commercial success a theme throughout, it is mostly a gratuitous, somewhat fictionalized account of BJM frontman Anton Newcombe's erratic, noxious behavior. The Dandys' lead singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor narrates, his piecemeal, haughty drawl dubbed over images of Newcombe assaulting band members onstage and stalking his former friends. At one point, Newcombe is shown roller-skating into a venue at which the Dandys are playing in a Soviet fur hat and leisure suit, vaguely spitting threats. Hipster violence! Hilarity ensues. Juxtapose that with shots of the Dandys playing to a massive crowd at the Glastonbury Festival, and we have drama. You have to admire Timoner's plotcraft; we all enjoy watching someone combust into a cloud of excess.
In all the focus on the absurdities of both, what struck me most was how much the Dandys hewed to the Epic Rivalry motif. Yes, they became successful, headlining at sold-out festivals in Europe and making several overproduced music videos with David LaChapelle. (Definitely set aside time to watch the video for "Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth." Clown makeup! Glam-hair! Babes in syringe suits! Sultry eye contact! Pastel!). Yes, Taylor-Taylor was jealous of Newcombe's tortured genius thing, and Newcombe vibrates insanely between the two poles of recognition-envy and contempt.
However, this was the nascent Indie scene. This wasn't the media-fueled bad blood between Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose, or the Nas and Jay-Z feud. Members from both camps periodically invoked the rivalry between Oasis and Blur (remember that one time when Noel Gallagher told a reporter he wanted Damon Albarn to "catch AIDS and die?"), or the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Both bands strove to emulate UK greats like Spiritualized and the Stones, with the Dandys tending more towards Bowie, and BJM exuding a vaguely more "We All Live in a Yellow Submarine" kind of vibe. But neither had the mega-star visibility to either eclipse their influences or truly live out their delusions.
Suffice to say, the Dandys come across as deluded slaves to fame. So when I saw them play this past weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to find them neither aloof nor decadent, their prismatic sound intact. The show was part of a celebration tour for the 13th anniversary of their album Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, to accompany a remastered release.
The Dandys made Thirteen Tales shortly before their ascent to European fame, before they renovated a party warehouse in Portland they named the Odditorium in which to debauch, and before they staged a shoot in the aftermath of a grim BJM blowout party, to pose among the very real ruins of someone else's health and dignity, and to dust themselves with a bit of that risk and verve.
Thirteen Tales draws its sound from nearly every tributary of rock. There's the grungy, groundswell synth distortion in "Nietzche" and "Horse Pill," interrupted by folky twang in "Country Leaver"; the meditative choral harmonies in "Sleep" and the sweeping psychedelica in "Mohammed"; and of course the brilliantly catchy "Bohemian Like You," pregnant with that particular kind of earworm that only a pop hit can instill. Thirteen Tales is raucous and eclectic and terrific. It's self-conscious without the sneer that came later, catchy and wild without mythologizing. Taylor-Taylor screams "I just wanna get off" into the microphone and we all know it's unabashedly true. He just wants to be famous.
The show I saw had a "mission accomplished" feel to it. They played well, energetically and candidly. I had the distinct impression that it was being savored. I took a shot of drummer Brent DeBoer with his eyes closed, mouth open, suspended in anticipation of the coming drop. Formerly doe-eyed keyboardist Zia McCabe writhed around onstage, caught up in the energy of the room. A distinctly middle-aged, no longer effete Courtney Taylor-Taylor didn't try to steal the show.
I left the show feeling a bit of hope for my co-millennials. All told, my generation has no right to pronounce judgment on the Dandys. With a bit of luck -- though we may spend a decade or so casually dropping the name of our tech startup, or demurring to eat dandelion greens unless they are certifiably local or wearing bomber jackets while propagating our succulents in our urban alley apartment -- we may eventually achieve some of the grace and ease the Dandys showed last night.