All Them Witches Conjur the Ageless Musical Mystic @ the Hemlock

11/06/2014

Two toms, one wide, shining, brass splash and a high hat, and a stout little kick drum with a hand drawn pattern sit at the back of the short stage. Stage left: a Rhodes piano that must be the first Rhodes. It must be, with that ancient aura and tattered paint. And what the hell is that bass he’s playing up front? Also ancient, also possessed of its own karma. Stage right, a sunburst breaks through probably four decades on the face of a Les Paul pulling down mightily on its player’s narrow shoulders, while behind stands a speaker cabinet covered in Grandma’s old couch. But on all of the players’ faces: youth’s supple skin, in stark contrast. This discord is quickly righted, however, and within minutes it’s clear they are mere conduits channeling the ageless mysticism of music as they launch into a set that is either one or nine songs long. This is All Them Witches.

The first song, “Jam,” was a summoning, immediately attaining 60% head bob from the packed-for-a-Tuesday back room of the Hemlock. Clear David Gilmore-esque guitar tones cut through distorted ambient noise, as dynamic changes waxed and waned straight into the second song, “Mountain.” This is where I started to realize how good this was going to be.

A tell tale sign of good music for me is that it makes me want to write poetry. I’ve never had that experience with a band this loud. (The words ‘metal doom’ have been used to describe them. I don’t buy that.) But over and over as they settled into a single groove where they operated as this perfectly integrated (and loud) organism, I felt my fingers twitching poetic. Look, it might sound stupid or cliché, but they were utterly in alignment in a darkly cosmic sort of way. I think this where most of the “psych” part of their self-described “psychedelta blues” sound comes from. (Felt heavily on “When God Comes Back” below.)

All Them Witches – “When God Comes Back”

On tour from Nashville, All Them Witches is four friends who came to each other in out-of-character ways. (Read an excellent account of their beginnings in Nashville’s Native magazine, here.) Most of the songs they played come from their second album, Lighting at the Door, released in 2013. A dozen of the shows from this tour have been recorded and are available via Bandcamp, which is excellent, and you’re glad for this, believe me.

Although the sound for their set was generally good, the vocals were buried so deep and distorted in the little room it was impossible to make out individual lyrics. Which is too bad. Some of theirs, like “Spent your life making swords / for the lonely / Crawled around in the woods / Cutting legs from the snakes ” (from “Mountain”) read like a gothic Woody Guthrie. But even buried, the voice of lead singer and bassist Michael Parks Jr, who writes most of the songs, still lilted and teased a rich baritone. Like Jim Morrison, both controlled and let off its leash in appointed moments.

Song after song, as the toms beat heavy, the guitar shuffled through a dozen different tones of various clarity and Allen Van Cleave whispered counterpuntal on his Rhodes, it was hard not to feel like we were on a journey. “Death of Coyote Woman” started out with a searing guitar lick and straight groove where Parks power-strummed his bass, and then fell into murky, trippy mess before melting into this irresistible moment with all three leads slowly and deliberately on the one, four, four, four, one etc. over and over and over for a hundred beautiful years on top of another tom-heavy tirade by Robby Staebler on the drums. Then guitarist Ben McLeod pulled out a slide and knew what to do with it, his fingers trembling. I noted, “Here’s another deep, mystical groove. These guys are fucking great.”

It was clear the crowd knew what they were in for. A request for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was yelled out during one of the two breaks in music, drawing attention to the band’s notable diversity of influences. In “Swallowed by the Sea” you can hear some of the dissonance and bending between half tones that this influence might intimate. There was Led Zeppelin, Delta blues, death and darkness, ZZ Top, renegade country, but none ever showing up how you would expect it to sound. Even their encore cover of Abner Jay’s “My Middle Name is the Blues” sounded unrecognizable mixed into their magic concoctions of sounds.

There was one point where a full 70% of the room was in motion of some sort. Head banging, bobbing, arm waving, fists pumping wildly. On a Tuesday.

There is no guarantee that a band with supreme talent will be skyrocketed to stardom. But I’ll tell you what, the bands that are skyrocketed to stardom have an It, and All Them Witches has It. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they were at the Fillmore on their next visit to San Francisco.

Catch them on tour this weekend in the North West.

A note about supporting band The Well, from Austin: this band had some righteous unity in their hard, fast set list. The vocals left a lot to be desired, partly because the vocal sound in that room is generally terrible. Hemlock is better for wall-of-sound type bands. Victoria said of them, “Black Sabbath + Dead Weather + Texas.” Long haired and wide eyed, they left the impression that they were describing a special message of some sort, but no revelations were forthcoming. The bass lines were, however, super sick, and there were some grooves that made my solar plexus rumble.

Photos by Victoria Smith