Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Review: Woven Hand at Benders Tavern
On Good Friday, the g-phrase and I attended what was probably the best concert that I will see this year.
Benders Tavern is a bar and small concert venue that sits in the building formerly occupied by the Goth bar, Onyx. Where it used to be dark and gloomy, with its TVs showing a mix of stylish and campy cult films, Benders is a brighter space with more buoyant colors. It was the first time I had been in the bar since before it had changed ownership, and the experience was a little disconcerting.
The part that made it so strange wasn’t the new style, though, it was that some of the clientele didn’t seem to have changed all that much. Pierced and tattooed people still attended, wearing their uniforms of black PVC and leather, carefully cultivating their ironic detachment and sartorial separatism. At least one of the concertgoers was a former Onyx employee who wore a familiar starter Al Jourgenson Goth cowboy getup. I was surprised to see them at the comparatively happy Benders and even more surprised to see them attending a Christian rock concert.
But that’s precisely what was happening. The scene was the people--the tiny shot girl with the pink, wool bunny ear cap and an unsettling, vampiric smile; the cocktail waitress with the exaggerated, cat’s eye granny glasses; the cocktail waitress with what looked to be tatts covering her entire torso and arms. Scattered throughout was a smattering of people like me: jeans and sweaters type people who looked more out of place than the guy with plugs in his earlobes.
Again, let me stress, that they had all come for a Christian concert on Good Friday. That isn’t to say that many recognized the timing or even that they were Christians themselves, but the music of David Eugene Edwards, both in 16 Horsepower and, as tonight, in Woven Hand is a powerful experience. It’s never anything less than Christian, although it would be safe to say that the largest portion of the fan base would be unlikely to identify themselves with the fire and brimstone Nazarene religion on display.
Edwards makes music that has its roots in a dark, country vision. It’s rumbling sounds, odd and ancient instruments, and unforgettable tunes coupled to a voice reminiscent of a more controlled, more versatile Jeffrey Lee Pierce. My first exposure to him was from a song called “Heel on the Shovel” from 16 Horsepower’s release, Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes. The opening is a pure country guitar building to that unsteady vocal on the first pair of lines: “I’m diggin’ you a shallow grave / and to the sun your face I’ll raise...”
I was hooked.
Edwards has only grown better. Woven Hand, without the backing of his 16 Horsepower band mates, is a more pure expression of his musical vision, although the overall sound doesn’t stray far from that path. Until this Friday night, though, I had only heard the CDs--and the concert experience is something entirely different.
Woven Hand, the band, is impressive. The drums are tight and explosive, the bass line is a deep, rumbling that resonates in your stomach, and Edwards’ guitar (and banjo and, I believe, balalaika, although I didn’t get a good look at the instrument) play is brilliant. Songs that seem quiet and introspective on a CD become urgent and nearly overwhelming in concert. The music--admittedly loud music--is entrancing in its rhythms and hooks, the lyrics a darker testament in a smoke-filled room.
Most of the night is devoted to Woven Hand songs, but a couple of 16 Horsepower tunes make the cut, too. An older song like “Black Soul Choir” slips in with the newer “Tin Finger” seamlessly, creating one perfect sermon where Edwards shows us the world from his own point of view.
The best moment of the night comes during an extended version of “Down in Yon Forest” where Edwards became a frighteningly animated figure on the stage, attacking the song and his acoustic guitar with a furious power. I’ve been to the loudest, fastest, hardest heavy metal concerts, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more intense and passionate performance (or an audience quite so transfixed). His sleight body flailed, his voice was a whisper and then a howling terror. And this audience, this strange mix of people, went absolutely crazy as the final, quiet of the song descended and he sang, “I love my lord Jesus above everything.”
And his voice is a surprising thing. On recordings, he sounds good, but live he sounds amazing. His range, his control, his charisma are all seemingly increased ten fold. He also has a slightly shy manner, a goofy smile, and a genuine appreciation for the support from the crowd.
The funniest moment of the night came when the band came back out for the encore. A few people started shouting out requests for their favorite songs. One voice rang out asking for “Holy Diver"--the entire place laughed along with Edwards.
Happy little songs with easy faith and bland music are what rules popular Christian music. Edwards’ music is anything but bland, the songs may have elements of happiness but aren’t ruled by sappy sentiment, and the faith is nothing like easy. His is a faith of hard choices, temptation, and submission--and his delivery is more the wild-eyed passion of our popular view of John the Baptist instead of the tepid packaging of, say, Amy Grant.
Woven Hand is all passion and strength combined to a unique musical vision. It cuts across bounds not because Edwards is compromising in his message, but because he is uncompromising in the musical expression of that message. Christian music could use more messengers like this.
Not only do I suggest buying the CDs (especially Blush Music, Consider the Birds, Folklore, Secret South, and Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes) but I can’t overstate the value of seeing this band in concert. For the $10 ticket cost, I was lucky enough to see one of the best shows of my life. What the band lacked in social skills (there wasn’t much in the way of banter or conversation with the crowd) was made up in exquisite music and a brilliant performance. I honestly regret all of the 16 Horsepower concerts I’ve missed along the way--and I won’t be missing any more Denver shows.