I first saw the Israeli rock trio Monotonix play at Kings Barcade, the now-defunct Raleigh rock club that once welcomed bands of all small stripes onto its short stage, concrete floors and cinderblock walls.
As Monotonix almost always does, it assembled its gear—one microphone with a long cord; one guitar, and its amplifier connected by another long cord; a minimal, battered drumkit—several feet in front of the stage. And again, as it almost always does, Monotonix proceeded to blow people's fucking minds.
On that mild Wednesday night, Monotonix lit its cymbals on fire. It poured and spat water and beer on the dense, semi-circular throng that surrounded the band. It slid the drumkit around the room, moving the show from one side of the room to the other, bending any sense of order the audience assumed it had. Most of the crowd smiled and cheered. Several were vexed and uncomfortable. In the band, though, everyone was smiling and sweating. It had gotten the crowd involved, and that seemed to be most of the battle.
These were neat tricks Monotonix had at Kings, but—at the time—they seemed like limiting factors. It was a joy to watch, sure, and I knew I'd tell friends in other cities to catch the band when it rolled into their town. But how many people would take Monotonix seriously or care about its shenanigans when its nightly 30-minute slot ended? Was it bigger than the moment, and could a band whose songs you could barely-at-best decipher matter aside from the stray "Wow!" you'd share with friends back at the bar five minutes later? I doubted it.
Luckily, I may be wrong. In April, Drag City Records—home to acts like Smog, Will Oldham and Joanna Newsom—released the Body Language EP, a six-track collection by Monotonix that I'll probably never listen to again. That barely matters, though. One advantage of being on a well-known label is the opportunity to tour with its bands, which happened for Monotonix in May and September. The band shared over 20 stages with Silver Jews, an act that, until 2006, didn't play live. Instead, David Berman wrote some songs, turned them into a record and released it.
By the time he finally hit the road, Berman could pack a club like Cat's Cradle. The old faithful came to listen. Most people are only interested in seeing Silver Jews in 2008 because they want to hear their favorite moments from LPs that are perhaps a decade old recreated. With pockets in hands, they wait for Berman's best, maybe singing along but mostly listening to the words. They want to be reminded, not reinvented.
Perhaps that's what Berman was alluding to when he mentioned his choice of openers in a Village Voice interview: "That's such a wrong thing to do. Kind of like having Monotonix open for you. When I find something that is the 180 degree wrong idea, then it's right for us. Because no one else likes that, and that's something I can be alone with." Berman knew it would alienate his crowd, and he did it anyway.
But Monotonix opening for Silver Jews was actually perfect. The bands expect such different things of the audience, and vice versa. Trying to simply stand and listen to Monotonix is a wash. The band is working for more from you than that. Silver Jews, on the other hand, are fine to mostly be like puppets or, better yet, a filmstrip. Go on. Play. Next town. On the same bill, the acts are a testament to song and spectacle.
But we don't need more bands like Monotonix. Imitators will ruin it. The stunts will get stupid. Someone will argue it's better just to stand and listen as the band stands and delivers. Instead, what we need is a stronger separation between studio and stage, adjusted expectations from audiences that don't hope its heroes treat its treasures like soft gold. You can watch a band stand and deliver pop tunes or folk songs or whatever on YouTube all day. But a live performance? That's something people should keep demanding and rewarding. Monotonix live is better than pretty much everything I've found on the Internet, except maybe certain trampoline accident videos.
If anybody needs a tutor or a reminder that it's OK to lose control live, take Monotonix on tour. Just please don't try and tell them they need to write better songs. That's just your old ideas, being precious again.
Monotonix plays The Pour House Monday, Oct. 27, with Sir Arthur and his Royal Knights and Polar Bear Polar Bear at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8.