Never skipping a beat, pacing and pumping, Plague Vendor’s Brandon Blaine oscillated between the composure and allure of the Thin White Duke and the frenetic convulsions of Iggy.
Firebird, St. Louis
Each band playing the Firebird on July 16 could have held their own as a main act. “You’re at a Bruiser Queen/Plague Vendor/White Lung show!” barked Plague Vendor’s Brandon Blaine. The solid bill delivered delightfully subversive talent from beginning to end, with local wonder Bruiser Queen’s touring three-piece arrangement growling and charming an opening set to a hardy crowd.
Sitting calmly behind the merch counter, Blaine seemed tranquil and sociable, eager to chat about their two albums and promising to test drive some new material during the set. But after a quick pre-show trip to the bathroom, he reemerged with a damp head of stringy hair covering his face, now a wiry, flailing, spastic, and thrilling mess on stage.
Well, first he curled up behind the red curtain draped on the back wall, then he shuffled, pelvic thrust, high-jumped, and amp-vaulted to and fro with the occasional conversation break to get snarky. “What’s going on over there?” he shouted at the seated section of the Firebird floor. “It looks like Applebee’s. Do they serve food? I’m going to come over there. I bet they’re eating chicken wings. I bet they’re doing lines. Save one for me.”
Thrusting like Elvis in a classic pair of Dickies workpants—the ones with the hidden stash pocket—Blaine chatted about the band members’ home in California. Allegedly, they’re graduates of the high school where the legendary “Johnny Be Good” scene in Back to the Future was filmed. So proud was he for remembering our Chuck Berry roots that he mentioned it again later, more directly, just to make sure we all caught it.
From a smart selection from Bloodsweat, their latest of two albums, the first track, “Anchor to Ankles,” dripped with monotone, moody brooding before bursting into an air-punching jumping jack. Never skipping a beat, pacing and pumping, Blaine oscillated between the composure and allure of the Thin White Duke and the frenetic convulsions of Iggy. The driving pace of ISUA brought riffs reminiscent of Queens of Stone Age, but with some tweaked, Zelda-like guitar effects: “Gimme life/ or gimme death/ gimme something that I’ll soon want to forget.”
Sometimes thrusting like Elvis, other times searching for something to climb, Blaine’s moves are difficult to characterize. They’re similar in cardiovascular intensity to Foxygen’s Sam France; where France’s always strike me as forced theatrics, off-the-rails and mismatched with his sound, Blaine’s unpredictable moves felt more genuine, impulsive, less calculated, more inspired—a physical expression of sound.
The swagger of “No Bounty” had Blaine punctuating every “uh” with another scoot across the stage, eventually screaming “I’M A WANTED MAN!” until, like a bandit, he ran off the stage to the water cooler, chugged a plastic cup of water, and charged back up to his catwalk. “Credentials” brought more manic transitioning from a provocative admonishing “Someone should’ve told you/ It simply just won’t do/ You’ve taken a back seat/ I hope no one finds out,” to screeching: “FUCK YOUR CREDENTIALS!”
With Jack White’s squeaky vocals plus Le Butcherettes’ staccato rhythms, the show closed with “Chopper,” leaving bassist Michael Perez to creep across the floor, Blaine breaking it down in a slow, sultry lurch, reminding us once more that this is not some ironic facsimile of punk, but the real, gritty deal: “You want to learn to love/ You want to learn to die/ You want to learn to suffer/ You gotta learn it’s not so tongue and cheek.”
White Lung faced an uphill battle in trying to follow Plague Vendor’s performance of “creating chaos on my own” with a similar level of chaos. While both outfits are categorized as “punk,” White Lung’s sound has become increasingly more contained, tidy, and orchestrated. Gone are the coarse, spit-flinging screams and crunchy guitars of their 2010 self-titled album, which would have been a fitting match for their opening act. Instead, their latest album, Paradise, continues developing their more melodic sound and self-reflective subject, veering toward the glam and toeing the angsty-emo line.
Perhaps it was the impossible tempo set by Plague Vendor that made White Lung seem sluggish or restrained by comparison. Singer Mish Way was most commanding when turned loose from behind the mic stand and strutting around the drums. “Face Down” from 2014’s Deep Fantasy had Way stamping her feet and telling us off with a flip of her hair—this in stark contrast to the immobile bassist, who looked sedately out of place, uncomfortable with the words falling out of her mouth on backup vocals. Drummer Anne Marie Vassiliou, on the other hand, worked a disinterested expression to coolly convey her prowess, nonchalantly dominating, as if Aubrey Plaza stopped by to casually blow us all away. Oh, this old trick? Working the drums like a boss? I guess it’s a big deal.
Unfortunately, Way did not capitalize on her strengths often enough, instead opting to remain stationary, commanding only through sweeping arms and dismissive hands. Though expressive and compelling in her own right, she seemed distant and reserved, looking beyond the crowd as if performing in a studio, headphones on.
In fact, while the latest album music comes together splendidly as recorded, it lacked edge and passion onstage. “Kiss Me When I Bleed” provided a perfect example, a tight and driven song with a punchy chorus: perfect for a soundtrack, but flat and inexpressive in live interpretation.
It may be nothing more than a matter of taste. Plague Vendor’s existentialist impulsivity is more to my liking than the sass and composure of White Lung—two different versions of punk, the former more hardcore the latter more classic—but to my ear, the like songs flowed seamlessly from one to the next, with little variation in sound or sight.
All told, the evening brought a solid display of style and bravado. I would love to see White Lung follow the tone set by their openers and loosen up a little, step away from the mic, engage with the fans—and there were plenty lined up to connect with the band post-show. Maybe they can find inspiration in their colleagues, who pulled no punches in setting an appropriately raucous tone, and let the music move through them rather than trying to conjure the music. | Courtney Dowdall