I first heard the Black Angels when I downloaded a free mp3 sampler of bands from a website I’ve long since forgotten. The amazing sound of this Austin, Texas psychedelic band immediately enthralled me. Being caught in the Midwest with bad FM radio playlists created by either computer programs or executives who don’t live in the areas of broadcast, I’d almost forgotten that rock bands could still rock and some could still make music unlike anything else.
So I was delighted to get the chance to see the Black Angels at Detroit’s Magic Stick on April 16th. It’s a hip venue – not so small that you can’t elbow your way to the front if you want, and not so big that the stage seems a mile away from the entrance. There’s a nice patio / smoker’s lounge upstairs that is probably nice in the summer and there’s a bowling alley and a pizza joint on the ground floor. You can’t miss.
Once I got in (for a mere 15 bucks – Eat that, Ticketmaster!), I headed to the merchandise table and scored not only a rare Black Angels EP (“Exit”), but also a sweet handmade gig poster created by the first opening act – Sisters of Your Sunshine Vapor. Only 40 were made and they were selling for just eight bucks. I snagged number 17 and asked the cute gal behind the table if I could get it signed.
She pointed to my right. “Sure, the lead singer’s right here.”
Sean Morrow, the lead singer and guitarist of the Detroit psychedelic trio, happily signed my poster and not much later, along with drummer Eric Oppitz and bassist Rick Sawoscinski, commenced to wow the crowd with a fine set of rock that instantly made me a fan and think “Why haven’t I heard these guys before?” They are far too good to be confined to Michigan for long, so see them while you get the chance. Heck, you can download their debut album for free on their website (www.sistersofyoursunshinevapor.com), so there’s no excuse to not hear them.
Up next were Suuns, a Canadian quartet with a mysterious lead singer / guitarist (Ben Shemie) who growled, sang, and probably spoke riddles while humble drummer Liam O’Neill (who later asked me with genuine concern if their set was good), bassist Joe Yarmush, and keyboardist Max Henry played electronic-laced freak-out rock that got better with each tune.
While Suuns hypnotized everyone, I spotted Alex Maas and Christian Bland (lead singer and lead guitarist of the Black Angels, respectively) step out from the “green room” (a small section of the club full of pool tables) to watch Suuns’ set. I approached with my poster and Sharpie and both were happy to sign it and just as happy I’d made the four-hour trip to see their show.
I would’ve driven longer. The Black Angels came out to the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and then launched into “Bad Vibrations” off their latest album – Phosphene Dream. I was floored. It was probably the closest I’ll ever get to a Velvet Underground show. Alex Maas’ unique voice instantly hooks the ear and the rest of the band comes at you with a sonic assault that seems like it was conjured up from a dusty tome pulled off a shelf in a Lovecraftian bookstore.
The Black Angels are one of the more versatile bands I’ve seen. Maas and Bland, along with musicians bassist / guitarist Nate Ryan and keyboardist / guitarist Kyle Hunt, all traded guitars back and forth. One moment Maas was playing a keyboard and the next he was strumming a guitar. Ryan changed between bass and rhythm guitar so many times that I lost count. Hunt would play keyboards one tune, guitar the next, and then extra percussion after that. Bland seemed to change between a Rickenbacker guitar, a bass, and a twelve-string guitar in the blink of an eye.
In the meantime, a rock goddess was pounding out thunder from the temple of Odin behind them. Stephanie Bailey is the secret weapon of the Black Angels. Tiny and strikingly good-looking, she can easily slip through a crowd quiet as a church mouse while strolling past you to go have a smoke. By the time you think “Wow! Who was that?” she is gone like an echo. Behind her kit (with a kick drum head decorated with band’s logo – an image of Nico, who sang with the Velvet Underground), however, she is an unstoppable machine. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen any drummer knock out such beats with such fury.
I got to meet all of the Black Angels, each member of Suuns, and all of the Sisters before the night’s end. Everyone was friendly (especially Joe Yarmush of Suuns, who tracked down his band mates for me), appreciative (Nate Ryan was amazed I’d driven four hours to see them), and humble (Stephanie Bailey blushed – Blushed! Was she trying to melt my heart after beating it into happy submission with her drumming? – when I praised her from the edge of the stage).
I cannot recommend this band enough. They hold a psychedelic rock festival every year in Austin, which I would now prefer to attend over SXSW. With the Black Angels coordinating it, it’s bound to be as amazing as them.
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Nik Havert is a writer, DJ, harmonica player, martial arts instructor, comic book publisher, crime fighter,music lover, cult movie enthusiast, and modern day Renaissance man. He hopes to shark cage dive sometime in the next few years and enjoys travel and good natural root beer.
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