San Francisco, Ca
As I strolled up to The Chapel, an unassuming figure opened the back of a covered truck, pulled out some records, and started walking inside, before being stopped by a young man, who interjected, “Hey, you’re Phil [Elverum, the sole permanent member of, and mastermind behind, Mount Eerie].” The man went on to describe the last time that he saw Mount Eerie play, and the record that he’d given to Phil afterwards, which the musician–against all odds–remembered clearly. Elverum thanked the fan for his support and strolled inside, walking less like a rock star and more like a roadie.
It’s to be expected–Phils Elverum‘s understated demeanor–given the low-key nature of most of his music. There are sections with roaring electric guitars that sound as thunderous as anything out, but the majority of his songwriting tends towards the mellow side of the spectrum. I didn’t know anything about the rest of the lineup, but I assumed that it would be in a similar vein. Like most of my haphazard assumptions, that turned out to be entirely wrong.
I walked in midway through the first act, GNAGORIACEHT, and immediately wished that I’d arrived later. While I have no conceptual hang-ups with sonic assaults as music, the buzz that I’d been carefully cultivating was in no mood for such violence. Working entirely on his own, Emmett Kelly explored the entire range of distortion, never really descending into anything that you’d consider a “song.” There are only a handful of people in the world who truly enjoy Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, but I’m fairly certain that Kelly is one of them. I gritted out the set with a beer clutched tight, feigning good will, but mostly just missing melody.
Intermission came and went with a smoke break, and I returned to a comedic interlude in the line-up. After a brief warm-up comic, Jessica Sele took the stage and immediately engaged the audience with a combination of frank perversion and earnest absurdity. Though her entire set landed, the highlight came in an anecdote about waking up in the middle of a lesbian orgy, putting on Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love,” and causing the sex to halt for an impromptu dance party. With well-timed delivery, shameless subject matter, and a warm local reception for the Oakland-based comic, Sele proved herself a fine addition to the evening, despite my initial misgivings of interrupting music for stand-up.
Before proceeding to Mount Eerie’s set, I need to get something off my chest regarding the stage set-up. Throughout the entire evening, a gong sat on stage left, the live musical equivalent of Chekhov’s gun. Maybe Kelly used it before I got there, but neither of the comics nor Phil hit it, leaving me with disappointed expectation in lieu of percussive release. I’m not saying that every show has to have a gong hit to get me going, but if you wheel one out on stage, you better make that sucker sing.
Despite my proclamations of theatric tomfoolery, once Mount Eerie’s set got underway, I had no complaints left to field. Phill Elverum came onstage as casual as he was before, simply announced, “This song is called ‘Sauna,’” and took his place behind the keyboard to unleash a fog of organ and drone. In my barely legible notes, I described the song as “ethereal to the extreme” and “in one word: ‘haunting,’” more preoccupied by atmosphere and tone than by any analytical descriptors of the performance.
Although there were a few trips to the keyboard panel, the majority of the set featured only acoustic guitar and unfiltered vocals, a dangerous proposition for lesser musicians. Every flaw, every sore is torn open, left obvious for the audience to see. Fortunately, Elverum more than rose to the occasion, holding the crowd’s attention with ease and moving swiftly between songs, each stronger and more confident than the last.
While his musicianship was impressive–particularly the breadth and complexity that he was able to conjure on his own–my focus was drawn more to his vocals, both from their impassioned delivery and stirring content. I found myself scribbling down lyrics from every song (like, “Life is a small fire to carry around”), unable to transcribe every off-kilter aside with the accuracy and speed that I required, but giving it my best nonetheless. As his set was primarily culled from unreleased material, the phrases weren’t naturally familiar, but they held the intimacy and resonance of an old friend.
It helped that he has stuck with rather consistent subject matter over the course of his career. A longtime resident of Anacortes, Washington, the 36-year-old has the catalog and content to suggest a lifetime of experience in the vein of what Bon Iver pulled off for one extended recording session. Music meant for the woods, for long walks alone and distant gazes into the mountains, Mount Eerie is one of the aptest names in modern music; one of the most concise and accurate summaries of the sounds and words inside.
The record that first brought me to his work, The Microphones’ The Glow, Pt. 2, carries similar lyrical concerns and acoustic guitar arrangements, but it folded guitar fuzz and powerful drums into the mix. A masterpiece of delicate melodies, distortion flare-ups, and abstract passages, the album helped develop my burgeoning taste for experimental rock and became a near constant in my listening rotation. While you could make an easy case for most of the selections on the release as being the highlight, my pick is “Moon,” a jumpy blur through the night that stands as an upbeat outlier in Elverum’s work. I knew that he wouldn’t play it, as he lacked the required full band and horn section to bring it to life, but I couldn’t help but miss it in its absence.
It didn’t help that the word “moon” pops up in–I’d wager–half of his songs. Between “moon” and “spring”–another of his favorites–the songwriter seems preoccupied with ways out of the cold darkness, beacons of light and life breaking through the night and winter. While that could easily make for depressing material, he swings more towards solemn and thoughtful than alienated and angsty. Plus, his witty asides and apt descriptors are strong and frequent enough to outbalance any buzzkill.
Clearly comfortable with the audience and almost surprised by their engagement, Phil looked up after one applause with a humble, “Thank you,” as if he’d almost expected jeers instead. He then introduced the next song–“I’m going to play ‘Young in the Sky’”–paused a few beats, and backtracked–“No I’m not; you’re welcome”–without further explanation, eliciting another thunder of applause. Unassuming until the end, he wrapped things up and meekly offered, “See you one day, perhaps.”
Although his music is distinctly the sound of an artist alone, Mount Eerie reaches the masses without a hitch, drawn in by Elverum’s subtle charm and playful musicality. Even though much of the material was unreleased and mostly lacked traditional verse and chorus construction, the people stayed with him the whole way through. In a night that may go down as the most wildly diverse three act lineup that I’ve seen, Mount Eerie clearly stole the show with a casually haunting performance.
On my walk back to the bus stop, I looked up “Moon” on YouTube and had my own encore. It wasn’t live, but it was close enough.