[Thanks to Bowery Ballroom's smart, energetic house manager, Amanda, who took the extra effort to make sure that this review happened]
Canadian crooner Gord Downie told the crowd at Bowery Ballroom last night that his show with the Sadies was their second gig “with lights and a soundcheck,” but the chemistry and energy was through the roof. Airing out most of the songs on their brilliant new album, Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun, they veered from surreal, sunburnt southwestern gothic rock, to hypnotic psychedelia, to the richly jangly, Americana-tinged rock that the Sadies have honed to a knife’s edge over more than a decade.
Has there ever been another rock brother combo as spectacularly true to their name as guitarists Travis and Dallas Good? Ray and Dave Davies, maybe, in a completely different idiom. Travis played deliciously clanging, ringing lines – and a sizzling electrified bluegrass solo toward the end of Los Angeles Times, a swaying Highway 61 revisitation. Dallas played slinky paisley underground leads, searingly high, sustained, reverb-drenched ambience and the occasional descent into frenetic, low-register roar on a couple of Telecasters. Their bassist stuck with a simple, muscular, low pulse in an attempt to cut through the mix over drummer Mike Belitsky’s artful shuffles and counterintuitive rolls across the toms, nonchalantly reasserting himself as one of the half-dozen best drummers in rock. He’s Keith Moon without the wrestlemania persona and more swing.
They opened with a couple of deliciously ringing spaghetti western-tinged numbers, Crater, then the album’s title track, the latter with the first of Dallas Good’s keening, paint-peeling leads. A little afterward, they gave the Who’s So Sad About Us an energetic workout that recalled the Jam’s version, but more elegantly. Later on in the set they did a stinging version of the Gun Club’s Goodbye Johnny, a strikingly apt choice of cover considering the resemblance between that band and this project, and encored with a frenetic, furiously riffing, extended take of Iggy Pop’s I Got a Right, Dallas Good firing off acidic layers of Ron Asheton sustain in place of James Williamson’s proto-glam attack on the original.
But it was the originals that resonated the most. Reaching up from his ominous baritone with an unrestrained angst, Downie completely sold the crowd on Budget Shoes, a grim, metaphorically loaded narrative about two desperados making their way across a desert “valley of ghosts.” The sardonic One Good Fast Job went down into snarling swamp rock; a little later, Downie dedicated the antiwar anthem Demand Destruction to antinuclear heroine Dr. Helen Caldicott - it sounded like the Who covering the Pogues. Devil Enough morphed electric bluegrass into Blonde on Blonde clang, while I’m Free, Dissaray Me went off into lingering Brian Jonestown Massacre-style psychedelia, a vivid contrast between the two guitarists’ styles. They wound up the set by stretching out the low-key soul ballad Saved into a similarly psychedelic anthem with several playful false endings.
Watching Downie strain to talk to the audience between songs was almost comical: as fans of his long-running band the Tragically Hip know, he’s actually a very articulate guy. As a diversion, he’d swing a big yellow spotlight from the back of the stage like a yo-yo in reverse. How he managed not to burn the skin off his fingers – those things get HOT – was the mystery of the night.
Downie and the Sadies continue their American tour with stops at Lincoln Hall in Chicago on May 10 and then at the Magic Stick in Detroit on May 11. Then the Sadies are at Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland on May 17 - if you’re there and this is your thing, don’t miss them.