Bottom Of The HIll
San Francisco, CA
I don’t drive into San Francisco often. Between bridge tolls, insufferable traffic caused by driver stupidity, and endless laps for parking, the practical hassle far outweighs any vehicular convenience. For the rare event way out in the boonies, however, I’ll make an exception. Two weeks ago saw one such case: Speedy Ortiz at Bottom of the Hill.
Why such an esteemed live venue lies miles from any actual civilization escapes all reason; the incongruity between advertised acts and locational strength too jarring for even the most seasoned minds to puzzle out. With zero foot traffic, few local residents, and a neighboring block given over to industry rather than commerce, you would assume the club would relocate, that it couldn’t possibly sustain regular business in such wilderness. Maybe part of the charm is the trek, the haul outside of a normal radius of movement, the feeling that you’re discovering new ground, new sound. Maybe the promoters relish the energy expended en route to every show. Maybe, just maybe, the remoteness of the venue ensures its unique character, its deflection of San Franciscan hordes a merit badge in individuality.
All speculation aside, there remains one undeniable benefit to such a far out destination: beautiful, bountiful parking. On each of my past two visits, I’ve not only parked on the same block as Bottom of the Hill, but on the right side of the road and mere steps from the entrance. While this may be more commonplace out in East Bay, convenience doesn’t come any clearer on the overpacked peninsula of San Francisco proper.
Of course, none of this is germane to the topic at hand, to the show that first snapped my attention to this oft overlooked corner of town. For those of you with ichthyic attention spans or scanning the page for an actually relevant piece of commentary, we were discussing Speedy Ortiz–more specifically, their show on July 25 at Bottom of the Hill. All caught up? Good.
With a new photographic ally by my side–a carried over comrade from my humble suburban beginnings–I strode into the venue well after my scheduled arrival, missing the entirety of the first set and catching most of the second, a rousing batch of tunes from local act Shinobu. While there was never any question of their enthusiasm, their songs featured far more slam than execution, a pounding repurposing of noise rock fuzz and punk backbeats into what could loosely be considered melodies. Drowning in waves of dissonance, the singer’s vocals rarely emerged intelligible, only clearing out for the odd off-balanced couplet or a capella song intro, given the triteness of the lyrics that did stick out, muddied vocals probably worked in their favor.
A beer, a smoke, and a strategy session later, I found myself front and center as Speedy Ortiz took the stage. First shocked by bassist Darl Ferm taking middle position instead of lead singer/guitarist, Sadie Dupuis, I accepted the unconventional arrangement in the name of balance, in the flanking guitars (Dupuis and Matt Robidoux) bolstering the central rhythm section (Ferm and drummer Mike Falcone). The next consciousness catching observation came with a good look at Dupuis herself, at this fairly unassuming and pleasant looking young woman with an axe thrown over her shoulder. Over the ten-or-so run-throughs of their debut record, Major Arcana, I’d developed a vision of the source of lines like “Now I’m getting my dick sucked on the regular” as something closer to Joan Jett or The Distillers’ Brody Dalle than the figure before me.
Recovering from initial bewilderment, once the quartet ripped into their set, no nonsense rock and roll took over. If you’ve read any pieces on the band, you’ve heard the claims of 90s indie influences, of Pavement-esque quips, Dinosaur Jr. sized riffs, and Sonic Youth like distortion. None of these characterizations are wrong, yet none entirely fair either. Unlike other nostalgic acts content to process once innovative sounds into monotonous pulp, sure to snag happily recollecting hearts, Dupuis and company wear their influences on their sleeves, before rolling them up to shred a sound wholly their own. They are by no means a throwback act, rather a band fully and surely of the moment.
Between pounding drums, booming bass, and dueling guitars, the instrumental mix tended to overwhelm the vocals more than they should, particularly given the well crafted and resonant lyrics. Currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at UMass Amherst, Dupuis puts more consideration and construction into her songs than the bulk of her peers; unique images and cutting asides popping from sludgy mix throughout the record. Playing favorites would take far too long, so I’ll settle on one that’s been sticking out the most: “I wanted you like a ghost wants revenge.” Simple, unsettling, and powerful, the front woman spits lines like this with every wrenching guitar lick.
While I’ve enjoyed all of Major Arcana, I have a hard time getting through it. Not because I turn it off early or become bored, but because I’m unable to make it past “No Below” without skipping back a few dozen times, or just giving in and toggling on repeat. A slow build of childhood angst and suicidal thoughts into friendly commiseration and, ultimately, contented acceptance, as Dupuis comes around to be “glad for it all if it got us where we are.” Though my description may not inspire you to drop everything and seek out a reminder of youthful despair, I assure you, the uplift will have you singing along after–oh, I don’t know–the 20th or so listen. By the 90th, my current count, it plays like an anthem that you’ve known for years, the ascending light that liberated you from the trenches of teenage woe. Sure, I’m biased, but “No Below” hits hardest, both on record and on stage.
I wish that I could say my enjoyment was unadulterated, a perfect evening of rock solid tunes, but unfortunately, I chose the spot of ground directly behind a young man that I reckoned to be about four sheets to the wind. As a fellow imbiber, I started with sympathy, with amused recognition at the sight of a staggering, smiling reveler. As the set progressed, however, and his slurred words and sloppy movements stole attention from the stage, annoyance replaced all previous notions of compassion. I don’t mean to sound like some premature curmudgeon, a 26-year old shaking his fist at the irresponsible youth, but if you repeatedly knock my writing hand, overpower the vocals that I’m there to hear, and ask us decent godfearing folk why we’re not losing our shit with you, I won’t take kindly to your jagged, ragged jib.
For the last two songs, four or five flannels joined in with the sloshed pied piper, springing a makeshift mosh pit upon us unsuspecting civilians. While tempted to join the fracas, concerns over the extent of my retaliatory action and the unusual and unnerving distance of sobriety stayed my fists, kept my high school moshing muscle memory secure in the holster. During a song break, the shit slinging monkey in the middle yelled towards the stage, “You guys are all right!” Dupuis broke a smile and replied, “You guys are wild.”
I felt shame in that moment, terror at my misplaced youth, at my inability to freak the fuck out, and my insistence on mind shaming those who did. It can be an inconvenience, even a nuisance, but does that excuse projecting bitter resentment towards an individual in the throes of escapist joy? Before I could rest on an answer, Speedy Ortiz revved up for another four-minute explosion of lyrical eloquence and thrashing instrumentation. I didn’t lose everything, not like that drunkard jostling me back, but I was set free from nagging analytics all the same.
If only I’d known Speedy Ortiz when I was a confused, reckless youth, when I needed them most.