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Friday, July 13, 2007
South Street Seaport, Pier 17
Part of American Express's
River to River Festival

Written by Eric Atienza
Photographed by Amy Davidson

(Opposite photo -
Danny Seim of Menomena)


Against a backdrop of gathering clouds, the lightly churning river and the four-masted barque, the Peking, this summer’s River to River concert series heated up courtesy of west-coast experimental rockers Menomena. Undaunted by a darkening sky and a quick drop in temperature fans filled the South Street Seaport packing the stage area, nearby boardwalks, and overhanging second story walkways. Before the headliners took the stage, however, New York’s own Beat the Devil showed that they, too, could draw and captivate a crowd.

Mitchell King of Beat the Devil
Photographed by Amy Davidson

Mishka Shubaly of Beat the Devil
Photographed by Amy Davidson
Shilpa Ray of Beat the Devil
Photographed by Amy Davidson

I should state first that rock bands experimenting with instruments generally foreign to the world of rock are generally hit or miss. They tend to walk a fine line between daring avant-garde and incomprehensible pretension. This thought sprang to mind during the first song as I watched singer Shilpa Ray take the stage playing a snow shovel by hammering at it with a pair of pliers while Mitchell King’s drumming was nearly masked over by bassist Mishka Shubaly approaching the stage beating a bass drum with a make-shift mallet comprised of two maracas duct-taped together. As the last notes faded I stood thoroughly bewildered as Shubaly picked up his bass and Ray dropped the shovel/pliers combo in favor of a harmonium – think accordion but freestanding and not lame – and launched into one of the most devastatingly raucous sets of recent memory. King was out of this world and out of control playing at a nearly inhuman pace – at times seeming to hit every piece of his drum kit at once – while Shipla’s vocal zigzagged from smoky and sultry to jagged and incendiary. A modern day Siouxsie Sioux, she could in one moment sing in a deep and smooth plaintive wail and in the next let loose with a completely unreal scream full of grit and sweat and the kind of sex it takes days – and possibly medication – to recover from. With an explosive delivery and wicked rhythms fitting seamlessly with rough, serrated time changes this band blew past whatever mental blocks arose from their first song and certainly made this reviewer love every minute of it.

Justin Harris of Menomena
Photographed by Amy Davidson
Justin Harris of Menomena
Photographed by Amy Davidson

As the sun finally set and the wind kicked up, Portland’s Menomena took the stage. Showing no signs of nervousness in front of what bassist/guitarist/saxophonist Justin Harris called, “… the biggest crowd we’ve ever played for,” the band went on to play a set so large in sound, if I hadn’t been there to witness it I never would have believed three people could have done it alone. In their recorded work this group is precise and crisp with every element of their music showcased equally in the foreground. In a live setting the band fills in every bit of empty with echoes, reverb, distortion, maracas, whistling, handclaps and anything else that will fit – all without losing an ounce of definition. The result is the most audibly enormous trio I have ever heard. Harris, percussionist Danny Seim and keyboardist/guitarist/glockenspielist Brent Knopf share duties on lead vocals, taking turns harmonizing when not changing instruments, and watching the flurry of movements and the controlled and harnessed chaos that is their live show I was astonished at the sheer musicianship and talent these three were able to invoke. Menomena’s tracks, by nature, contain a certain ebb and flow and this night even the valleys in their rhythm were grandiose.

Opening songs “Weird” and “Air Aid” laid the groundwork setting the atmosphere abuzz with an almost palpable thickness, but it was in the middle of the set, during “Wet and Rusting” that the band clicked off their safeties and unloaded their full musical barrage into the deepening night. From here on in the intensity and sheer size of the music rose exponentially blazing through a high-powered “Muscle ‘n Flo” and into an epic “My My”. Throughout the set they maintained their poise, played together, held nothing back and from first riffs to last lingering notes never missed a single beat.

From their self-released record I Am the Fun Blame Monster to their instrumental Under an Hour to their latest Friend or Foe on Barsuk records Menomena has continually grown in success and in sound. On the banks of the East River they carved out their own place in the current indie rock scene and proved that what they’ve shown so far is just the tip of the iceberg.


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