Years ago I would had written about my 3-day road trip to see the recently reunited Quicksand for my zine. It would have been long and sprawling and more self-indulgent than comical or informative. There would be paragraphs about gas station food, about rowdy all-night crash spaces, about police interrogations, and about the dangerous exploration of a frozen waterfall, but times change I suppose. Keep it concise. No one prints out and squirrels away Too Much Rock show accounts to surreptitiously read in class or savour behind a locked bedroom door. Attention spans are short.
I hadn't been to First Avenue for decades. I remembered it being seedier. Dirtier. Maybe it was, or maybe the suburban me just thought it was, but either way, today the club is clean, sharp, organized, and deserves its reputation as one the best live music venues in America. $25 through the doors, $3 for the coat check girl, then, with photo pass in hand, I planted myself at the barricade that separates audience and stage. Surprisingly, I was the only one there. While not all-ages, I assumed this 18+ show would have its share of fanatical youth – you know, the sort who wait in line outside in the cold, burst through the club doors at first opportunity, and cling to the stage like a barnacle. These youth would be particularly anxious, I imagined, since they had discovered the band after its demise, and were now witnessing the reunion that they previously only dreamt of. But that was not the case. Instead, the crowd was aged appropriately for a band that broke up fifteen years ago. And these veterans claimed tables, they didn't stand up front – certainly not for an unpromoted opening act.
At exactly 8pm the opening quintet of Single Mothers took the stage, performing the role of "plus special guest." For some, this answered a nagging question; for the rest, it just asked another. While this London, Ontario band is preparing for a full length debut on Hot Charity Records in 2013, listeners can get a feel for the band's energy from its two previous EPs. That's where I discovered that Single Mother's frontman Andrew Thomson sounds a lot like Craig Finn. Not even his voice, but his phrasings, and his wry, witty lyrics. During the band's 45-minute opening set, Thomson expressed his awe and gratitude to be playing on the First Avenue stage, and in doing so tossed out a list of Twin Cities-based luminaries including The Hold Steady and The Replacements. The latter prompted the band's touring guitarist to launch into the opening notes of "Can't Hardly Wait." Curiously it was this temporary guitarist that proffered Single Mothers' solos, leaving guitarist Michael Peterson to manage rhythm responsibilities. Both guitars rang joyously through the band's eleven-song, high energy set, that included material dating back to the first song the band ever wrote. Musically, this meant propulsive indie rock with a few quick punk blasts thrown in for good measure. Despite what I would consider a long set for an opener, when the curtain came down (literally), the veteran audience was just catching on.
There was little turnover between acts, and what there was I found both confusing and reassuring. Single Mothers deserve fans of its own, but had it really drawn a separate fan base uninterested in the headliner? In some cases, yes. I noted several fans lining the front of the stage during Single Mothers' set that were nowhere to be found during the headliner. Good for Single Mothers. Generally, however, the most effusive fans during the opener's set were just as enthralled by the headliner. And the pair of enthusiastic dancers who bounced through the entirety of the opener's set indiscriminately continued their conspicuous exhibitionism throughout the headliner's performance as well. Only, during this second set, their once-private dance floor was shared by several young and tentative moshers who seemed flummoxed by the lack of participation around them. Most of the audience's rage disappeared around the time the last music video aired on MTV.
And while I didn't expect a rollicking mosh pit or waves of stage divers, I was still perplexed by the open real estate so near the stage. Anyone could have walked up to the barricade – if they didn't mind standing near the wings of the wide stage, or suffering through the muddy sonic mess that usually plagues this post. Having sampled it during the opener's set, I imagined this must have been the reason fans were uninterested in proximity, and so I decided I would spend the headliner's set perched in the balcony that wrapped around the club. But not for the first three songs – those would be spent in front of the barricade, directly against the tall stage, shooting up at the band I had traveled 450 miles to see.
At 9:15 the curtain rose to the epic score of "Conan the Barbarian." Before the audience had a chance to collect itself, Quicksand began the opening strains of "Omission" – a song written, recorded, and released within six weeks of the band's formation in 1990. The New York City foursome would continue with "Unfulfilled" from the same era, before plotting its way through a 17-song set built from its two-albums. It was the same setlist the band had performed the night before in Chicago, and the night before that in Detroit. It was the same setlist the band would play the next night in Denver. While fans may wish for spontaneity, they demand to hear their favourite songs, and the setlist highlighted them all.
The quartet sounded much the way it did before its hiatus: Sergio Vega's churning bass battling with Tom Capone's chugging guitar in a competition to see who could be richer, fuller, fatter. Alan Cage's drums skittering about colourfully between tight punches, and Walter Schreifels' rhythm guitar sawing through the haze, or merely holding ground to allow Capone to squeal and chime his false harmonics. But there were differences too. The brawn in Schreifels's vocals was replaced with a smoother croon recalling his work in his post-Quicksand band Rival Schools. Whether this was a stylistic choice or the result of age (Schreifels is 43), I can't say. Also, the band's songs were noticeably longer, stretching beyond its post-hardcore pedigree, approaching post-rock proportions. Both "Delusional" and "Landmine Spring" doubled (or more) their recorded boundaries, with the former including a largely masturbatory circuit bending interlude performed by Schreifels. Still, the audience, young and old, was on cloud nine.
The band had completed ten songs before addressing its fans. There was little showmanship (no jumping musicians, flailing guitars, or the like), a great deal of musicianship, and a fair amount of stage show courtesy of the club's lighting rig and green lasers. Several songs later Schreifels spoke again, effusively thanking the audience and the venue, all the while lobbying both parties to have the band included on the venue's wall of stars. After a dedication that meant a lot to the recipient and nothing to an outsider such as myself, the band launched into its ubiquitous cover of The Smiths' "How Soon is Now?"
Two songs later, the members of Quicksand left the stage one by one, slowly trimming players until only rolling feedback remained. I began to pack up my gear, and prepared to abandon my delightful balcony post, but I stopped when the lights didn't come back up. Montreal and Toronto didn't get an encore, but Minneapolis did. Soon the band returned for an unadorned telling of "Can Opener," capping the band's 80-minute set, and cueing the house lights' return.
For the past fifteen years, the members of Quicksand have remained active in music, so there was no reason to believe that they wouldn't nail a reunion gig. Still, I had my lingering doubts. Thankfully, those fears were erased by a performance that was not only free of cobwebs, but exhibited a few new tricks as well. There has been no definitive answer to how long this reunion will last, but rumours are already swirling that the band may return to the studio – possibly picking up the unfinished demos once slated for the band's third album. If that happens, I can only hope the ensuing tour takes the band closer to Kansas City. I don't know if my body can take another weekend road trip like this one. I don't know if I'll be able to resist telling you the tales.