Show Review & Photos: HOLY SONS @ Variety Playhouse (10/02/11)

Opening bands and Dangerfield, man – they don’t get no respect. Case and point, when the drummer for Holy Sons – who opened Sunday at the Variety Playhouse for Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – broke his stick mid-song, in true rock ‘n’ roll fashion, he chucked it towards an audience member standing stage left before grabbing for a backup, all the while barely missing a beat. Instead of gratefully risking life and limb in a brash display of fanaticism and securing this precious piece of rock memorabilia for herself, however, the girl – concerned more with her own personal safety – thought it best to bat the stick away, where it rested stage side, untouched, until the set’s end. C’mon, people – who doesn’t love swag?

Now, I’ve seen plenty of openers who would’ve done as well to just smash their instruments on stage, Townshend style, so I’ll admit that the “opening bands always suck” mentality isn’t totally without merit. But when your opener has been recording for as long as your headliner, and your headliner is an Indie demigod like Stephen Malkmus? Well now, that’s a whole ‘nother story.

A longstanding bedroom-recording project cum introspective outlet, Holy Sons, the eclectic brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Emil Amos, is nothing if not enigmatic. Two decades and over one thousand songs – that’s how long Holy Sons has existed, and how many songs Amos has reportedly recorded under the moniker, respectively. Despite his prolificacy, however, Amos regards himself as something of a perfectionist, claiming to take multiple calendar years to complete a song. And as if that all wasn’t bizarre enough…

As an individual, Amos’s worldview consists of equal parts alienation and paranoia, claiming in interviews that the world is totally indifferent to what he’d like to talk about, and harboring a fear that sober people are dangerous and untrustworthy. Seemingly an extension of his psyche, his newest, Survivalist Tales, is a Sci-Fi infused quasi-concept record of lo-fi alt-folk that explores one person’s mortal struggle against the elements – but only to an extent, as Amos has stated that no record is ever truly a concept record. And, despite that Survivalist Tales is Amos’ ninth release as Holy Sons, he has never, until now, toured in support of his recorded work.

After reading up on Amos, and having an exceedingly difficult time realizing the full contours of his personality, I’m not sure exactly what type of person I expected to watch walk out on stage – some crazy-eyed junkie-recluse, perhaps, crawling and snarling up to the mic like Golem towards his precious ring? I don’t honestly know. In the spirit of full disclosure, I wasn’t wholly surprised to walk into a mostly empty Variety Playhouse this past Sunday, given the determinedly obscure and occult nature of Holy Sons. I was nonetheless shocked, however, when Amos – demeanor cool, dress casual, motor control in check – sauntered to the front of the stage and made a quip about having to play especially softly, because “all of Malkmus’s band is backstage asleep.” And later, after he commented that the outro to one song had “just a hint of Guns ‘n’ Roses,” it hit me – Amos is a funny guy, charming even, and seemingly…well, normal. After the crazy mental picture I’d constructed, it was all somewhat underwhelming.

Even with dashing my hopes of witnessing insanity and excess in the raw, though, Amos managed to put on a respectable show. Amos keeps a low profile, certainly, but he also keeps good company, splitting time between several critically-acclaimed, though popularly-neglected acts like Om, Dolorean, and Grails. Understandably, then, the guy’s got chops, and with backing band to match, Holy Sons put on a show that was completely incongruous to the paltry attendance. Musically, the band was all over the map, at different times riding a syncopated groove through a middle eastern-tinged jam, breaking out a lap slide for some good ol’ Americana, and building a strong backbeat and rocking like a freight train out of control.

And although this is Amos’s first tour in his twenty years as Holy Sons, his band played with a precision and dexterity that suggested they’d been performing alongside him since his earliest sessions; they never once seemed like a group assembled purely for the purpose of touring. Rather, this incarnation of Holy Sons seemed like a close-knit group of friends, sharing together in what they love and taking potshots all the while, keeping it loose but still keeping it tight; and, this impression was only furthered when Amos and his bass player exchanged warm embraces post-show. Especially for someone who appears to take himself deadly serious as an artist, who sees each new record as an opportunity to tackle yet another of life’s little existential dilemma’s, Amos’s stage presence was refreshingly unpretentious, and totally enthralling.

After his band’s set, I managed to steal a moment with Amos, telling him how much I enjoyed his show and thanking him for playing. As a person, he seemed as gracious and kind as I could have ever hoped, albeit a bit eccentric; but when I asked him what he had planned for the coming months, he claimed to be on the cuff of releasing a “pot-smoking, Madlib-style hip hop record.” So, although he seemed sincere, I’m still at a loss for what to make of Emil Amos – as a person, as an artist, as an idea. But in the end, whether you and I ever truly understand him, it’s safe to assume that Amos will still carry on his wayward Holy Sons.

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