Talking to Steve D’Agostino — 1/2 of the manically experimental duo ZEBU! and a fellow NYC expat — last Tuesday night at the Golden Bough, he said something along the lines of: “wow, Macon is a really cool town.”
Speak to nearly any of the startlingly diverse array of touring bands who come through the Bough on a weekly basis, and you’ll probably hear something similar. Anyone who lives in Macon day in and day out will undoubtedly have a more complicated opinion on the matter, but on Tuesday night, everything seems to fall into place. Macon is indeed a cool town, a destination for left-of-center touring bands, and the epicenter of a growing, gloriously uncorrupted underground music scene.
Turning the corner onto Cotton Avenue at around 9:30 I was startled to see the street filled with people. The streets of downtown Macon are almost always uniformly quiet on weekday nights, so it is always a nice surprise to see the crowd of regulars and visitors chatting outside the Bough on Tuesdays, but last night was something else. With four bands on the bill — three of them touring outfits — the street teemed with unfamiliar faces. Bands and groupies gathered around touring vans sipping beers and trading stories, a group strummed guitars at the entrance to a parking garage, and raucous music from inside the bookstore echoed through a back alley and out onto the street.
Inside, ZEBU!, a duo of D’Agostino and drummer, vocalist Ted Lee, were in the middle of a frantic original. Lee pounded an insistent drum beat as he half-sang, half-shouted lines into his mic, while D’Agostino added power chords, distorted lines, and the occasional harmonized vocal part. ZEBU!’s music — mainly the lyrics and titles — are unabashedly tounge-in-cheek, but the underlying beats and structure are deeply musical, and delivered with focused intensity.
The duo ended their set by completely succumbing to their comic tendencies. Sweat dripping from his brow, Lee stood atop his drum stool after a particularly heated tune, and stripped down to his boxers. He then launched into a cover of an Elvis Presely tune — anyone remember which one it was? — and preceeded to lurch around the room and into the audience while delivering the song’s pleading lyrics. This sounds bad, I know, but it was actually a great, if ridiculous, ending to a great set of music. I picked up two of ZEBU!’s albums — Chainsaws & Cheerleaders, and Bloody Lips — on the way out, and have really enjoyed them both.
The Atlanta-based band Savant was next, and its members did away with pretense almost immediately by stripping down to their underwear and shorts. At that point of the night, I couldn’t blame them at all. The Bough has been without AC for the last month or so, and this night the humidity and the intensity of the performances were adding up to some uncomfortable conditions.
The quartet leapt into their driving opener with abandon. Blending elements of punk, metal and bracing atonality, Savant has it’s own sound, and an uncommon commitment to performance. The group’s compositions vary widely — check out their Bandcamp site for a sampling of this — but their intensity never wavered throughout their extended, sweaty set at the Bough.
Macon favorites Rat Babies and the Macon-based band Sugar Virus finished out the night. I’m sorry to say that I had to cut out before hearing Sugar Virus — though I have seen them in the past; if you are into unapologetic, bracing hardcore: this is the band for you — but I was able to hear Rat Babies’ blistering set.
There are a lot of names thrown around to describe Rat Babies — sludge, swamp, doom — but nothing seems to come close to capturing the bass-and-drum duo’s singular approach. The band opened with a new composition that Clark Bush described to me as a “slow punk song,” or what I thought could be the sound of a punk song decelerated to the point where every jagged note and gutteral scream comes into sharp relief. While this certainly doesn’t describe all of Rat Babies’ music — tempos and approaches vary widely — I do think it comes close to describing the band’s M.O. Taking a somewhat familiar sound — doom metal, sludge rock, etc — the band often slows things down, and opens them up to create a new and compelling sound, one that is in turns atmospheric, meditative, violent and suffocating.
Singer and bassist Mux Blank’s spittle-inflected screams and thunderous bass lines create a stasis that seem immovable until drummer Chod enters with a flexible and mobile beat. That tension between motion and excruciating immobility was certainly a hallmark of their performance at the Golden Bough, and is what — to my ears, at least — makes Rat Babies so compelling and unique.