Saturday marked the inaugural evenings of ellum:ONSTAGE (check And Another Thing, page 59 for an update on that) and the Palladium Ballroom, aka What Happened to Gilley's.
What happened is that Gilley's is now split into the traditional country venue (relegated to the much smaller side) and the Ballroom, whose ginormous spaciousness reaches almost Versailles-like proportions. (For the down-low and the business-y side of this whole deal, check out the entry on our blog Unfair Park titled "Adios, Gilley's" from November 17, 2006.)
The Ballroom is meant to hold those sort of in-between shows that are too small for Nokia but too big for, say, Dada; it's most comparable to the Gypsy Tea Room's Ballroom, though still, jeez, much larger. So...much...larger.
It's an impressive space. The airy standing room in front of the stage is flanked on each side by long saloonish bars which, though filled with people, prove spacious enough to not feel crowded, at least on this night. The expanse between the two parallel saloons is so vast you would need binoculars to recognize faces across the way. There's also a roomy seating area in the back, with good views of the stage, and this night it also appeared to be the de facto children's zone, despite the giant plastic beer cup pyramid someone had built on their table.
In all, it is a comfortable, clean, modern venue—straightforward, functional, adornment-free.
So it was odd to encounter the giant banks of speakers, provided by the evening's sponsor KDGE-102.1 FM, blasting the ears off anyone within a 20-mile radius with a constant, blaring recorded shit-storm of bands such as Saliva, Lamb of God, Three Days Grace and, uh, the Lemonheads, all of whom will make appearances at the Palladium in the upcoming months. And, except for the Lemonheads, all of whom follow the relatively new-fangled formula of producing extremely grating music, churning guttural—almost monstrous—vocals with angsty lyrics, hard, distorted guitar riffs, muddy bass and total lack of melody (dude, where's the hook?). It's this sort of threatening, very masculine drama thing, as if it's only OK to express feeling if you are aggressive about it. As the explosion of sound ripped through the giant hall, I thought of Manuel Noriega, when American troops tried to force him out of his hiding place by torturing him with a similar barrage of high-volume rockitude. And you know what? I felt sorry for him.
But the kids, as they say, love it. And since the crowd of several hundred was made up of many, many teenagers and young adults, the atmosphere was happy, charged and friendly. The excitement swelled when headliners The Vanished took the stage. The Vanished are a Dallas band; they've been around for about three years, though they tour a good deal and only play Big D seven or eight times a year, and they play a brand of music that is similar to the Edge's playlist of the evening, but with less aggression and more of a My Chemical Romance goth vibe.
The Edge-y similarities center on the Vanished's propensity for hard guitars, harsh vocals and that weird tunelessness that inexplicably infuses hard rock these days. The differences, however, are important because they are what make the Vanished a good band.
At first, I hated them, especially because lead singer Kevin Kirkwood indulged in a hiccup-y vocal style, his voice constricted and catching in his throat, in an attempt to convey emotion. But the crowd was thrilled. Fists pumped and devil horns shot toward the roof. Dozens of people—in fact, mainly young girls—-sang along or mouthed the lyrics. The youngest girl couldn't have been more than 7 years old. Perched atop her dad's shoulders she churned her arm like a speed freak and sang along to every single song. It was either the cutest thing ever or a serious Damien moment.
Either way, something was going on. The Vanished connected big-time with their audience, because unlike the mook-rock that played before their set, they displayed vulnerability rather than attacking the audience. The vocals were angsty, yes, and the music was loud and hard, but not in a way that made you think the bass player was going to kick you in the face. Kirkwood's dramatic stage presence—spreading his arms, crucifixion-style, with his back to the audience, for instance—may have been cheesy, but it worked. He was dynamic, engaging and, most important, committed to what he was doing. Similarly, upon a close listen, the music that initially seemed so simplistic actually put forth a subtle complexity—the melodies may not be so much tuneless as divergent from conventional popular music templates; the meandering tunes wander off rather than remaining clipped, precise and easy to digest. What at first seems just short of caterwauling might actually be an innovative form of music.
Still, judging from the crowd's response, it doesn't seem that most people think about it in that way. As the Vanished's fans surged toward the stage, reaching out to touch the band members, rocking out—hard—in the sterile environs, you had to admit any intellectual reaction was beside the point. There's no greater joy than jacking your rock 'n' roll devil horns toward the heavens, communing with your fellow head-banging cohorts. And, as the crowd did just that for the duration of the night, the cavernous Palladium suddenly seemed pretty small.