Sometimes you can tell by the crowd whether or not a show is going to go over well before it starts. Usually, this intuition is foreboding, but in the case of the Steve Gunn and Lee Ranaldo show at PhilaMOCA Jan. 21, one couldn’t help but be ready to lighten up with some music.
The past few days had been a whirlwind for the performers, who had the surreal experience of playing in Washington D.C. the night before, the same day as the inauguration. Ranaldo in particular felt the need to express his thoughts on the night, asking members of the audience if they participated in the women’s march or casually talking about Trump’s Twitter the way one would with friends.
Gunn, on the other hand, took a much more laid back approach. He tried to avoid the topic, but couldn’t help but crack a smile mid-song when a friend placed a “Steve Gunn for President” sign up against the wall. The most words he could muster was to dedicate a song to the marchers. Their respective responses to the event would mirror the way they performed.
Ranaldo opened his set with what could only be described as a noise collage, the closest thing to live musique concrete one is likely to find this side of a synthesizer. Using various pedals, loops and even a cello bow, Ranaldo constructed waves of feedback that hit the crowd as he would prepare his next sound, adding bells as well. It was a sobering reminder of just how far Ranaldo is willing to take the instrument and distort the sounds to his liking.
After the ambient introduction, Ranaldo spoke briefly about each song he would perform, the majority of which were for a new album co-written with author Jonathan Lethem. Among the highlights were a rumination on daily activities titled “Circular” and a post-modern cowboy narrative called “Uncle Skeleton.” Ranaldo’s stage presence was daunting, and the force with which he screamed and pounded on the guitar made me forget some of his less thought out lines. In particular, a “gratitude/latitude/attitude/platitude” line that almost ruined a song was saved by his return to a passionate final rendition of the refrain, “Are you afraid of a human love?”
If the greatness of Ranaldo’s guitar work is due to his force and experimentation, Gunn’s is defined by his mastery. Taking the stage with a single guitar and some fingerpicks, Gunn proceeded to mic check and dive directly into the winding ballad “Old Strange,” a 2013 original that could be easily mistaken for some of Jimmy Page’s folksier material. The folk influence, though not quite as present on his newer material, is the key to Gunn’s writing style.
“Your faith is savaged and your mind is damaged/you’re more than halfway there,” he sings out to the crowd when he can manage to take his eyes off the fingers expertly pairing complex arpeggios.
Gunn’s banter is filled with non sequitur, whether it’s letting the audience know his feet are starting to sweat or asking about ’90s funk revival bands. It became increasingly personal as he told a story about being on the beach with his first girlfriend before diving into set closer, “Wildwood.” “Who am I? Too soon to say,” Gunn crooned as his guitar painted the uncertainty of young adolescence he can’t quite capture in words themselves.
“Wildwood” would have served as a perfect closer to the night, but the crowd wanted more and soon Ranaldo, Gunn and opener Meg Baird returned for a cover of Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues.” Young’s post-apocalyptic description of the havoc the Manson family reigned on the Laurel Canyon made for an ominous ending to the night. Each performer took a verse as their guitars swirled together in what became the best performance of the night. As the crowd left, the wariness of the past days remained but Ranaldo’s and Gunn’s music had provided them beautiful refuge.