Drenge in NYC
Live review – January 29 and 30, 2015
Like all things great, it comes out of nowhere and blasts your expectations to dust. Two tall, good looking guys in plaid and t-shirts, now accompanied by their new bassist, head up to the stage. You could call it another round of the epic battle of British bands trying to break America. But then you get to witness something completely different. Where finally you forget about it all, except what pulls you in like a hidden current under the surface. That incredible sensation of everything coming together to create a new element. More than the sum of its parts. Call it alchemy. Drenge are magic.
The facts are easy. For instance, I can tell you that last Thursday and Friday I went to both of the Drenge shows, one at Shea Stadium in Brooklyn, and one at Mercury Lounge in Manhattan. Shea has its special charm, the mysterious door, the low key attitude, the porch with the view towards Manhattan standing in for Oz, over an industrial landscape soon to be wiped out.
At Mercury Lounge, the performers must walk up alongside the wall, almost but not exactly through the crowd, to head towards the stage. Nothing really to mark them out from the rest unless you knew who they were. And when they stood on the tiny stage, last-minute tuning, and checks, nodding to each other, you might just be expecting your standard pretty good band. But with one final nod between the guitarist and drummer, a torrent of sound engulfed the room, swept away all doubt, and slammed everything into its proper place.
Last summer, when Drenge came to these East Coast shores, fresh off a triumphant set at Glastonbury, and newly crowned NME’s best new band of 2013, they played two sharp and brilliant shows to a small group of the curious. Fast forward six months, and the small room at Shea Stadium is packed. There’s a photographer with three different cameras, one of which flashes repeatedly in Eoin Loveless’ face as he wrenches out lyrics and guitar notes with an unflinching passion. The crowd is filled with a mix of people, including a group of young women who have just noticed that the comely brothers Loveless need to disprove their last name. There’s a front line of the faithful, as close as they need to be to the band. Looking around, there’s a large percentage who know all the words and are singing along. When the first notes of the new single, “We Can Do What We Want” ring out, there’s a cheer. Seeing as it just premiered a few days before, on BBC 1 as Zane Lowe’s hottest record in the world, on the internet, and significantly, on this side in their American television debut on Letterman, it shows that the fan base is growing exponentially and they are following the activities of their new favorite band very closely. Watching people sing with the chorus, as Eoin shouts out “we can do what we want”, it’s like being freed from all constraints. It’s a song of desperation, not entitlement.
Eoin Loveless on guitar, Rory Loveless on drums, and Rob Graham, now joining them on bass, form a sound that seems almost impossible, like you need to be looking behind the curtain for the rest of them. As Letterman said, “That’s all you need.” So it appears. They open with “Running Wild”, from the new album. They’re a machine, animal mineral, a super car. 0-60 in three seconds or less, sheer adrenalin and power, head thrown back against the seat, giant smile on your face. One song ends and they start up another before you’ve even had a chance to breathe. The connection between Eoin and Rory is seamless – a glance and they’re away again. They tear through a selection of old and new songs – and what stands out is that it’s clear Drenge don’t just devastate space with their sound – they also write brilliant songs. Unexpected rhythms. Ironic observations. Melody blended with obliterating, saturating sound. Now they seem to be reaching for even more. The addition of the bass player has the effect of releasing Eoin to explore more space on the guitar, while Rory attacks the drum kit with added finesse. Already great, they’ve gotten even better. It’s a near flawless set, finishing with an unbelievable version of “Let’s Pretend,” that has Eoin gripping the guitar like a man possessed, singing like he’s ridding himself of a horde of demons. At the end of the night, walking through deserted streets in the heavily falling snow, the set is still thundering in your head in the silence, while the dark windows look on. Drenge in New York City.
The next night, as they walk single file up to the stage at Mercury Lounge, outwardly relaxed, they set up and do the final checks just like ordinary mortals. Then Rory looks at Eoin, some unspoken signal between them, and they tear into “Running Wild” like they’ve been given minutes to live. Eoin’s voice rings out clear over the blistering guitar and drums. From the very first torrent of notes and interlocking drums, it’s clear that this is nothing like anything else. They’ve taken the rock and grunge and garage model and smashed it. The song ends and then the lights turn green and we’re off again. “Nothing” sounds incredible, punching you in the chest; “Face like a Skull” has an extra weight and heft with the addition of the new bass player. New song “The Snake” comes into its own live, smashing out with exuberant force. Favorite “Fuckabout” shows off its little nod to Hendrix, taking its time to build for an ultimate attack. The brothers Loveless are serious as fire, and yet there’s a sense of sharp humor behind it, something rooted in the earth, a deep kind of conviction, and a straightforward physical presence. Eoin and Rory Loveless are so good you can’t really believe it.
And the connection between the two is evident. Rory watches Eoin intently and the guitar and drums intertwine in a way that makes you think of the best moments of Bonham and Page, musical conversations where the battle of whether it’s the drums playing the riff, or the guitar playing the rhythm isn’t fully resolved. Drenge weave in and out of each other’s lines, a slalom of speed. Through it all, Eoin sings, a musical sensibility scaffolding the ironic lyrics. It’s everything good about rock slammed through the shredder, and yet it’s all seems brand new. Watching Drenge pour themselves effortlessly through the songs from the first album and the new offerings off the second album that’s coming, reveals the rare joy of observing promise fulfilled. People are looking at each other, wondering if they really have been lucky enough to be right at the beginning of something. Earlier, waiting on line in the biting cold to get in, wind chill in the single digits screaming up Houston Street, there was nothing to say this was the night. By the time Drenge tears apart “Let’s Pretend” an hour later, and ends it all on a feedback whine, it’s all theirs. A crowd full of strangers, out on a bitter cold night, who moved closer to the stage with every song, drawn to them by some kind of magnetic force, yells and whistles for more as they leave the stage. Something big just happened. And we get to say we were there.