Emo’s was a sad site on Wednesday. By all appearances the place was hopping just like any other show on any other night but under the surface everyone was thinking the same sad thought: I wish RX Bandits would stick together and stay on the road. When the band announced in April that the 36 dates they are playing this summer would be their last, fans mourned what they thought to be the end of one of the most forward-thinking bands of the last 10 years. It turns out this is a bit premature. The band is not breaking up entirely, they’re just pulling a Beatles-circa-1966 move. As RX Bandits, the members energy will be channelled to writing new music without the intention of ever performing it live.
Marfred Rodriguez-Lopez, bass player for psychedelic jammers Zech’s Marquise, reminisced about the first time his band toured with the Bandits in 2009, saying it was only after playing with them that he realized how much his band needed to step up its live game. The El Paso native felt that the Bandits had sent out a challenge and he felt compelled to respond. Rodriguez-Lopez and Co., have evidently taken that challenge to heart. After openers Happy Body Slow Brain finished their set of ethereal indie rock, Zech’s took the stage for a 40-minute for an extended spastic, tripped out jam session. Any review of Zech’s Marquise must make note of each member’s virtuosity. The band left no note unturned and no beat unplayed as they alternated between unrestrained brutality and understated beauty. The set was composed entirely of songs from the band’s forthcoming album Getting Paid, which is set for a September 27 release through Sargent House.
Next up were the consistent partners in crime to the Bandits, Maps & Atlases. The band’s latest effort and, unbelievably, their debut full length was released last year through indie giant Barsuk Records, the label that launched a thousand cardigan sweaters and thick rimmed glasses when they brought the world Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism in 2003. The band’s switch from Sargent House, with its roster populated by the likes of Fang Island, Tera Melos and Boris, to Barsuk, with a roster whose heaviest artist would probably still be knocked to the floor by one strum of a power chord from Fang Island’s tower of half-stacks, suits the band quite well. Maps and Atlases have always had a strange folksy vibe to their songs and on Perch Patchwerk, frontman Dave Davison’s folksy ramblings and his band’s off kilter approach to indie rock are really allowed to breathe. The band opened their set with one of Perch’s standout tracks, “Pigeon.” For the next 40 minutes the band tore through a set of unbelievably complex folk pop songs, nailing each time change and hammer on, while Davison’s warble led the whole weird procession forward. The band gets better each time I see them and all I can say is that they need to be seen to be believed. Davison and Erin Elders fingers need to be studied closely to understand how ridiculous this music is. Shiraz Dada and Chris Hainey deal in some special brand of rhythmic ESP, with their groove locked together with unbelievable tightness. If you get the chance, watch this band.
The Bandits were up next and if there was any doubt about how serious these guys are about cashing in their frequent flyer miles and settling down for life off the road, their performance should have put those doubts to rest. I had seen the band twice before this show and the band gave solid, energetic performances each time but everything seemed to be turned up by about 50 percent on Wednesday night. Matt Embree threw his body around the stage with a little more reckless abandon than anything I had previously seen from him. He leaned out over the crowd and yelled lyrics into their faces as if it were microphones and not people who were pressed to the edge of the stage.
The band opened with one of their signature jam sessions with multi-instrumentalist Steve Choi joining Chris Tsagakis on drums and Embree operating a sampler. Once the noise subsided, the band launched into “VCG3” from Progress and the crowd went nuts. The audience at Emo’s returned all the love and energy the band put into their set, as if thanking the Bandits for the previous 15 years of live memories.
The Rx Bandits have dropped jaws all over the world and those lucky enough to have caught them share a special bond. If the band is as serious as they appear to be about focusing on their other projects and turning RX into a studio band, the world has lost one of its great live performers. But if the bands who opened the show are any indication, live music is certainly not doomed. Performances like the one Maps & Atlases offered up prove that there are still those bands who can “send out the challenge.”
(RX Bandits performed at Emo’s in Austin, Texas on June 29, 2011)