Review: American Wrestlers at Northside Fest

Review of American Wrestlers live show at the Northside Festival

American Wrestlers
Elvis Guesthouse – June 12
Northside Fest – June 14
New York

I saw American Wrestlers twice when they were here in NYC. Once at the oddly named Elvis Guesthouse in the East Village, which despite the charming attempt to create a story around Elvis still being alive somewhere on the “hippie trail” in the Middle and Far East (sure, why not), was a stunning example of how shrinking supply and rising rents is pushing music into places not entirely suited. Yeah, yeah, it’s all about the vibe and not the sound, but a drum kit in a corner across from a tiled-in seating area that seems a throwback to when the space was a kitchen, or toilet, or massage parlor is going to overpower everything, no matter what. There was free beer before 8, not complaining, and some eager fans, and the dancing guy who finally broke loose, freed by the music and started dancing from the bathrooms to the tiles very happily. It’s a tribute to the quality of the songs that even in such inauspicious surroundings, Gary McClure and his band brought the album alive.

After a killer show supporting Viet Cong on Saturday, the Northside Festival in Williamsburg – Brooklyn – was the next port of call for American Wrestlers. A hot, sunny day, Bedford Avenue closed down to traffic, some squares of grass put down in the street to mimic a park, and the opportunity to watch the endless parade of hipster fashion was the setting.

American Wrestlers hit the stage in very low key fashion, no introduction. The music was left to stand for itself, especially after the bassist let the audience know they were from St. Louis, then after another song, let slip the name of the band. No matter. In the open air, the slightly rockier edge the touring four piece gave to the fairly intimate album worked well. Reticent front man McClure and his unique voice and style shone on songs like “There’s No One Crying Over Me Either” and “I Can Do No Wrong”. His guitar playing pierced through, demanding attention. The crowd grew. It’s always fascinating to see who stops to listen, who suddenly hears something that hits a nerve in the cast of thousands that is Brooklyn on a warm summer Sunday. And there’s a lot of subtle power here to touch you, pulling you around to take a second look, finesse in the shifts between chorus and verse.

There were some technical difficulties, a vintage Fender amp that insisted on buzzing until it was hit, or kicked. But it wound up being a blessing in disguise. McClure was clearly so disgusted with it that he got angry, pounding the amp, frustration in every step, and finally speaking to the crowd, he revealed all the energy banked there, like a fire you think is out but suddenly bursts into dangerous life. More importantly, that voice let loose, and all the buried hunger in the songs was right there at the surface, nerves scraped raw. “Wild Yonder” – a stunner on the album, beautiful and quiet, opened up, all the structure and lyrics standing out clear finally like a tree illuminated by lightning.

It’s a delicate business, in this world of fitting in, to be the person that stands out. You’ve got to hope that Gary McClure, writer of songs like “Kelly”, a tribute to the one of the many victims of police violence, standing there in the New York City sunshine, doing battle with the rigours of touring on a shoestring, keeps turning up. In this incarnation as American Wrestlers, he demonstrates a singular and important talent.

Alice Severin

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