Live in L.A.: Slint at the Henry Fonda Theatre


Henry Fonda Theatre, July 23

By Randall Roberts

The tension between the dweebs and the rockers was palpable last night at the Henry Fonda Theatre. The dweebs, giddy at the opportunity to hear Louisville band Slint perform its wuss-rock classic, Spiderland, in its entirety, stood in silent reverence as the band sauntered onto stage, picked up their instruments and launched into a pitch-perfect rendition of “Breadcrumb,” the soft, lilting opener to the 13-year-old album.

Live in L.A.: Slint at the Henry Fonda Theatre

Photo by Randall Roberts

The boys snuggled with their girls, bobbled their heads in time with the music, and strained to hear exactly what lead-mumbler Brian McMahan was muttering into the microphone. All was well in the world: silence beget more silence, and every harmonic tone floated into the crowd as though launched with wings. As the first song closed, the band received an enthusiastic but measured appreciation, and then more silence. It felt like we were at a Philharmonic world premiere. Song number two, “Nosferatu Man,” received a similar, awed response.

But this wasn't the damned symphony, and we weren't at a concert hall. We were at a rock show with a rock band, and some of us came to party. This became quite evident near the halfway point of the performance, when drummer Britt Walford grabbed a chair and a guitar and sidled up next to guitarist David Pajo. Both seated, they began to pluck out the melody of “Don, Aman,” the gentlest track on the six-song album.

In the song, the narrator (Don) is at a party. We're introduced to him outside, away from the noise. He decides he needs to take a piss. But he can't, so he just stands there. Sings Walford: “A plane passed silently overhead. The streetlights, and the buds on the trees, and the night, were still.”

And then, as if choreographed by some invisible narrator, a woman in the back of the crowd let out the biggest, most joyous, most outrageous scream imaginable. (Close your eyes and count slowly to five. That's at least how long it lasted.) It echoed through the hall like a bellow from the bottom of canyon, this huge, drunken yowl. Totally inappropriate, totally passive-aggressive, the move ripped through the delicate cotton, and 500 dweebs were outraged. The five rockers in the crowd giggled, one of whom couldn't resist the temptation and, like a crow answering the call of a suitor, responded with an equally impressive holler.

Spiderland's genius lies in its tension. It was created by four men (five last night) reared on punk rock who recorded their masterpiece with a punk rock producer (Steve Albini) and released it on a punk rock label (Touch and Go). It arrived at a time in rock when the loud-soft-loud punk dynamic of the Pixies was making its way into the mainstream. Slint, however, shocked its audience – and earned its mythical status -- by ditching the requisite loud, building their songs with a similar template but defying expectations by only occasionally offering a release. “Don, Aman” offers very little. Walford continued:

Like swimming underwater in the darkness,

Like walking through an empty house,

Speaking to an imaginary audience,

being watched from outside, by no-one

The lady let loose a second, equally impressive scream, and one of the dweebs couldn't resist suggesting a resolution to the accrued tension: “Punch her in the face!” he demanded as Pajo and Walford tangled guitar melodies around each other. A few people applauded the idea. Others offered impatient shushes. During the next song a fight broke out in what would have been the pit at a punk show. Deep in the heart of the crowd, the tussle was the result of - you guessed it – somebody who wouldn't shut the fuck up.

Word is the lady with the yell was excised from the crowd. The fighters in the pit were removed, as well (to an enthusiastic round of applause). From then on, the obedient audience was, for the most part, as restrained as the music. But for a few memorable moments, the id kicked the ego's ass, and a few well-placed yowls ruled the night.

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