The great, mysterious and powerful Canadian band Godspeed You! Black Emperor is not stopping in Chicago on its current tour. This is why I decided to make the trek on Monday night, Sept. 21, all the way down to Bloomington, Ind., where GY!BE was playing at the Bluebird Nightclub. I got a ride from my friend Sei Jin Lee, and we arrived just in time. What an odd thing it is to ride for hours through Indiana, only to walk into a nightclub on a college campus as a band starts playing — not just any band, but one that is making an apocalyptic roar. Was anything else happening anywhere in Indiana — or the whole Midwest — to rival the epic, majestic noise pouring forth from the stage in that inauspicious-looking bar at that moment?
Godspeed You! Black Emperor recently released its second album since coming back from hiatus, and it’s yet another epic by this Montreal ensemble: Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. That new album made up the core of the band’s set on Monday night, and like much of this band’s music, it seemed more like a symphony than just a series of rock songs. The violin melodies are one reason why GY!BE’s music feels orchestral, but it goes beyond that. All of the instruments, including electric guitars, combine to make mountains and valleys of sounds, carefully mapped out in these compositions. The pounding, crashing chords evoked the drama of a battle or a disaster, but melodies soar out of the darkness, sounding like a triumph of the human spirit.
No one in the band said a word. As always, its music had an eerie visual companion — flashing black-and-white collages created on the spot by Karl Lemieux, who ran strips of old movies through several projectors. The pictures looked like damaged newsreel scraps, postcards and manuscripts — decaying fragments of our world.
Set list: Hope Drone /Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’ / Lambs’ Breath/ Asunder, Sweet / Piss Crowns Are Trebled / (unknown) / Gathering Storm / (unknown) / Mladic
By the end of a long night, more than a dozen musicians had filled the stage at the Bluebird Nightclub in Bloomington, Ind., joining their voices and instruments together into majestic rock songs. But as crowded as the stage was, what was more striking was the absence of one man.
The songs cried out for the voice of Jason Molina, the singer-songwriter who had played with many of these musicians in his bands Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co.
Molina died in March, and the tribute concert on Saturday (May 11) was a celebration of all the great music he left us with. It also served as a sorrowful reminder of what we’ve lost. (Read and hear my 2006 interview with Molina.)
Held in the college town where his record label, Secretly Canadian, is based, the bittersweet concert brought together Molina’s former bandmates from the various phases of his career, as well as musicians from other bands whom he’d befriended. The show stretched on for more than five hours — a testament to just how prolific Molina was, and just how well his music holds up.
Proceeding in a roughly chronological order, the concert began with some of Molina’s earliest musical collaborators reuniting. Admitting they’d had little chance to rehearse, these players still managed to deliver moving renditions of Molina’s early songs.
“This is going to be an epic night of music, 20-plus years of music and people who played with him,” singer-guitarist Bruce Comings remarked. “It feels weird to be play this music without him, but it feels good.” Later, touching his hand to his chest, Comings added, “We all miss him and this is helping a little bit.”
Singer Jennie Benford (who also performed in Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops) made the first of several appearances throughout the night during this set. It was great to hear her lovely vocals again.
Oneida, who toured with Molina and recorded a split single with Songs: Ohia, played a three-song set, returning to the scrappier, more song-oriented sound of its early days to capture the spirit of the times Oneida spent with Molina. For this performance, Oneida was supplemented by Erica Fletcher on bass and vocals. (She later came back to the stage with Oneida’s Fat Bobby to sing another tune.)
The next band to take the stage was essentially the group that Molina brought together in Steve Albini’s studio to make the 2003 album Magnolia Electric Co. — although it wasn’t the same band that played on later Magnolia Electric Co. albums and tours. This was a rare opportunity to hear these musicians (including some members of the Chicago heavy metal band Arriver) playing the songs live. Back when Molina made the record, he turned out the lead vocals on his song “The Old Black Hen” to Chicago alt-country singer Lawrence Peters, and now it was Peters who took a turn at the microphone to sing it in a rendition faithful to the beautiful original. Most of the songs from that masterpiece of an album were saved for the end of the night, however.
The core of the band that became Magnolia Electric Co.’s long-running lineup is the Coke Dares — a Bloomington trio that plays loud, fast, short and humorous hard-rock songs. The Coke Dares delivered 10 songs in rapid succession, adding a bit of comic relief to the evening. “We felt like we won the lottery when Jason asked us to play with him,” Coke Dares/Magnolia guitarist Jason Groth reminisced.
The final set of the night was essentially a concert by Magnolia Electric Co., and it was practically a concert unto itself. “We don’t have a lead singer, so we’ve asked out friends and ourselves to fill in,” Groth said. Not everyone could sing the songs in a style similar to Molina’s, but a few of them pulled off a tone reminiscent of Molina’s conversational, melancholy vocals.
Capping off the last set, players from the various eras of Molina’s career piled onto the stage, playing four songs from the 2003 Magnolia Electric Co. album: “Farewell Transmission,” “I’ve Been Riding With the Ghost,” “John Henry Split My Heart” and “Hold On Magnolia.” At their most dramatic moments, these final songs swelled and pounded with an almost startling force. In their quietest and most lyrical passages, the songs felt like prayers the musicians were saying for their lost friend.
This was not only a stirring tribute to Molina. It was also probably the last time the musicians who played on these songs will ever do them live in a concert anything like this. It was the final Magnolia Electric Co. concert and the final Songs: Ohia concert — albeit without the man who defined those bands. As the final notes sounded, singer Jennie Benford said, “I don’t want it to end.”
Molina’s handwritten liner notes for Magnolia Electric Co. included this comment: “Someone used to say to me: ‘If the only two words you ever say are THANK YOU then that will be enough.’ Thank You.”