The Thermals, Live at Level B with Years and City of Pieces

I woke up this past Saturday morning with absolutely no plans for my weekend, but after a quick perusal of my Facebook feed, the circumstances changed dramatically.  The Thermals posted a flyer for a show they were doing that night at Level B, having decided to make the trip from Portland down to the Capital City to bless us with their presence.  So with the choice now between “doing nothing” and venturing downtown to see one of my favorite bands play an intimate show in my hometown, I easily decided to go with the latter.  Despite a rather sparse showing from my fellow Salemites, the band did their usual excellent work and hopefully had as great a time as I did.

A personal souvenir from the show

A personal souvenir from the show

Since this is the third time we’ve covered a Thermals show in a year*, we’re not going to spend too much time discussing the intricacies of their set.  The band focused mainly on their most recent album, sprinkling several cuts from Desperate Ground throughout the set, while making sure to cover crowd-favorites from their classic The Body, The Blood, The Machine; a personal highlight was hearing “Power Lies” from the underrated Personal Life make an appearance.  The group has been hard at work writing material for a new album, and I’m glad to say that it looks like there was good reason that I had trouble recognizing a couple of songs, since the setlist confirms new tracks “The Walls” and “I Will Find My Way”.  The new songs definitely did not represent any drastic change in style, and instead fit naturally into the band’s set, which should provide comfort for their fans.

Throughout the show, a reel of “Betty Boop” cartoons was shown by a projector behind the band, seemingly selected at random.  The resulting juxtaposition provided a couple of noteworthy moments**, the highlight being that an Alice in Wonderland-themed episode appeared as the band played their cover of “White Rabbit” in an alarming moment of synchronicity, something that which Hutch himself remarked and Kathy noticed as well.  Though the crowd was not nearly as raucous as they were the last time The Thermals came through town, we were able to convince the band to indulge us with old favorites “Overgrown, Overblown!” and “No Culture Icons” for a mini-encore.  After the show, it was great to see Hutch and Kathy and Westin hang out with the crowd and appear sincerely grateful for those that turned up; hopefully the band will make this a regular gig, though it may help to do a bit more advance notice for a Salem gig.

A view inside of the theater with the ad for the show

A view inside of the theater with the ad for the show

As for the openers, they represented both the old and the new of the Salem scene.  Years (the young folks) performed a set of catchy 90’s-era punk with what I assume is some heavy influence from Pavement, while City of Pieces (the old folks) taught the crowd some lessons on the classics, with a style that was reminiscent of The Cramps with their tinge of psychobilly.  Years could use some seasoning, not necessarily to brush up their chops but to work on their songcraft a bit, yet they probably have a bright future ahead of them.  However, City of Pieces was a blast, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of their sets around town, as their presence assures that it will be a fun night.

*Not only did we see The Thermals play Level B last year, but they were also part of the extensive Project Pabst lineup.

**The selection of cartoons included a rather racist episode made things uncomfortable for those paying attention (though the band was thankfully too busy to notice).


The Thermals, Live at Level B

Living in Oregon, we get the opportunity to see a lot of great acts.  We’re just big enough to attract the biggest headliners, but we’re also just weird enough to get a lot of up-and-coming groups as well.  It’s just that usually they come through Portland (and to a much lesser extent, Eugene).  It makes sense–there are a ton of venues and young people around, so it makes booking an easier bet.  On the other hand, we in Salem have old people and…the Armory.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Salem, “The Armory” is not some cute name–that was its function.  You can imagine the kind of shows that get booked there.  I’ll just say that metal shows are the only ones are able to…take advantage of the acoustics.

So when I heard that one of the best punk bands around today (and a personal favorite) was coming down to Salem, I was more than a little excited.  Granted, The Thermals are from Portland themselves, so it’s not exactly like they’re venturing far from home, but let’s at least give Salem some credit, because it was not a one-off show but part of a tour.  And they were playing a venue that was not the Armory, but a spot that I hadn’t heard of before called “Level B”.  I’ve seen The Thermals plenty of times before (strangely enough, I saw them multiple times in New York before I got the chance to catch a hometown show), but never in my hometown.

Note: if you are unfamiliar with The Thermals or disagree with my assessment of their merits, you are free to stop reading and take a listen to their album The Body, The Blood, The Machine right now.  Then you can come back and finish this review.

Level B preparing for the show

Level B preparing for the show

As it happens, Level B is the same spot where the old independent cinema in town was located, as can clearly be seen by the seats in the picture above.  (I want to assure readers unfamiliar with Salem that Salem Cinema is alive and well with a great new location with better facilities, so I still get the chance to watch plenty of great films).  I have high hopes for this venue in the future–it should be versatile enough to host different events, which means it’s more likely to stay afloat when it can’t get regular booking from non-local musical acts.  They also had an excellent sound system, and all three bands sounded great as a result.  And even the inconvenience of having those seats in place have a certain charm, giving the place a certain DIY-vibe of “we’ll play wherever they’ll allow us to play”.  Or that could just me spouting bullshit.  Either theory is valid.

I knew I was in for a good night (beyond the fact that I was seeing a live act that is consistently great) when two things happened: 1) I got a compliment on my Japandroids shirt (though it would have been nicer if it came from a lady, I’ll take what I can get), and 2) I heard somebody talking to the band before the show about how much he loved their album Fuckin A.  That’s an album that I love as well, and by some strange coincidence the band had not performed most of those songs live at the shows I’d been to previously.  It seemed like a good signal that we would get the chance to hear more of that album that night.

Aside: I never know how to act when I recognize band members in the audience.  It’s always an awkward dance of “should I say something and say, ‘YO I LOVE YOUR STUFF,’ or do I allow them to be normal people for a few minutes?”  I think I usually go for the worst option, where I’m pretty sure I end up staring at them far more than what is comfortable. 

When I heard the opening drumbeat of “Our Trip” early in the set, my hopes for some Fuckin A songs officially materialized.  The band then blistered through a high-energy set filled with tracks from their latest Desperate GroundFuckin A, and the now-classic The Body, The Blood, The Machine, sprinkling in favorites like “I Don’t Believe You” and “Now We Can See”.  The set seemed to mirror the attitude from Desperate Ground itself, which seemed to be constructed as a reaction to the more muted reception of Personal Life.  Personally, I am a big fan of Personal Life, which in many ways was an album that the band needed to make to shake up their formula and stretch their songwriting.  It’s an album filled with a lot of mid-tempo numbers that are great to listen to on the stereo, but can sometimes kill the flow of a set, so I have no problem if some of those songs don’t get played, no matter how great they are.

The super-fast and hard-charging songs of Desperate Ground make for a great live set, though it takes a lot of listens before you can appreciate the nuance of each song (which is just a fancy way of saying “it’s hard to remember which song is which, but you KNOW it comes from that album”).  It doesn’t help that those songs are missing some of the great guitar solos from Hutch that were a hallmark of their earlier work (not showy, but very melodic and building on the melodies within the song and brilliant with their subtlety), though Kathy’s bass often takes a lead role with some of the fills.  Knowing this, it made Hutch’s remark after diving into the crowd during “The Sunset” for the last half of the song that he “nailed the solo” all the more hilarious.

When all else fails, shoot in black and white.

When all else fails, shoot in black and white.

So yeah, it was a pretty fantastic show.  Any night where you get to hear excellent songs like “St. Rosa and the Swallows”, “A Stare Like Yours”, and “A Pillar of Salt” (a fan favorite that got legitimate airplay (at least in New Hampshire/Vermont) back when I worked in radio), it’s going to be a good night.  And the fact that I could plan my evening without budgeting a two-hour round-trip car ride made it even better.

Stray Facts and Observations

1. The drumbeat to “Our Trip” and “Here’s Your Future” are the exact same, meaning that those two albums start off the same.  Is it a coincidence that these might be their best two albums?  Probably.

2. The chord progression to “A Pillar of Salt” and “Returning to the Fold” are exactly the same, just at different tempo.  Since they are back-to-back on the album, you can bet this was intentional.  And it’s brilliant.

3. The Body, The Blood, The Machine is a concept album that doesn’t suck.  Give The Thermals kudos for pulling off the nearly-impossible.

4. There’s no reason why “I Don’t Believe You” shouldn’t have been playing on rock radio.  It’s a perfect pop-rock song.

5. There’s no reason why KNRK in Portland shouldn’t be playing The Thermals in their normal rotation.  They need to substitute one of the hundreds of times that they play The Lumineers or Muse with these local heroes instead for once.

6. The last time I was at the venue it was still Salem Cinema, and I went with my family to watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  Those who know me are free to laugh now.