So we finally made it to Valley of the Vapors on the fourth night. (Hey, we work, and it's a drive...) The venue was great — plenty of space, a real stage with wrap-around curtains (tightens sound, keeps those waves from bouncing around), great techie stuff (lights, sound) — just all around kudos. The crowd was mixed (it's all-ages, with armbands for beer) and there was a healthy mosh pit for half the show.
We got there at 8 p.m., so we came in on the second band, the Svetlanas — a punky thrash rock foursome from Italy that pretends to be from Russia. (All their songs are about the KGB and occasionally, there's a Russian word tossed in, compliments of the half-Russian singer.) Their sound is reminiscent of early '80s hardcore, still influenced by the rolling lines and snakey, swaggering rhythms of '70s rock 'n' roll. Their performance was conceptual and theatrical, with a large dose of the magic coming from the gnarly, animated female vocalist. She destroyed the gap between audience and band, jumping into the mosh pit and later offering up her mic during a cover of The Runaways hit "Cherry Bomb." Think Wendy O. and the Plasmatics with less flash and props.
The Svetlanas were a tough act to follow, and the next band, The Jukebox Romantics out of southern New York, offered a lot of energy but lacked the raw libido and authenticity we'd just witnessed. I'm not sure why they call themselves Jukebox Romantics, since their musical tradition doesn't extend to jukebox days or really, very far beyond '90s Epitaph-style punk (think NOFX). They're anthemic and a bit prone to tropes, such as the quick stop - stagey jump - feet and fingers both land solidly, simultaneously. (It's okay a few times, but a few times in every song?) But there was some nice Irish stomp influence and the crowd was into them. They even brought a handful of kids onstage — underaged guys who'd watched through the window the last time they played Maxines.
The Grayces are a mutant blues rock trio out of Nashville, but they sound more like Memphis. The drummer and the bass player were super-solid, with a bass distortion pedal that muddied the sound in a really great way. Front woman and guitarist Iz Stone's vocals evolved in the course of the set from a countrified Grace Slick to something heavier and garage-y — something more akin to The Stooges. She primarily used open tuning and rhythmic chords that allowed the bass player, Patrick Blackwell Ward, to carry the melody. The effect was primitive and convincing, and this is a band I hope to cross paths with again.
Finally, the headliners — the spooky Third Man Records (of Jack White repute) quartet, The Black Belles — known as much for their black dresses and oversized witch hats as for their purring, hissing guitars and trembling, danceable riffs. Maybe these girls are long-lost Mario Bava starlets — firstly, they are a concept, driven by a retro-garage sound. They're the dark side of '60s girl groups. What you get onstage: absolute composure (only Olivia Jean, on guitar and lead vocals, speaks — albeit sparingly), pale makeup, long dark hair and a purposeful uniformity (if a head toss sends a hat flying, the affected witch turns her back to the audience while she replaces it).
Though their songs bear the thumbprint of Jack White, these witches are coming into their own. There was a hyped video and a seven-inch for their first single, a catchy tune called "What Can I Do," released in 2010, and then mum's the word for at least a year. Only a master media manipulator like White could keep the buzz going without delivering a solid product. But now there's an EP and live shows that feel like nothing less than the culmination of a vision. Part authentic garage rock (Jean is a badass guitarist who played in Detroit bands for years) and part slick, branded art project, The Black Belles have incredible presence (it doesn't hurt that the two front-witches, Jean and Ruby Rogers, on bass, stand about six feet tall in their stacked heels).
Jean carried the show, bouncing between clean, overdriven guitar and fuzzed out riffs. Shelby Lynne is hidden away in the back, but her confident smacks broadcast fury of the "hell has none like a witch on drums" variety. Rogers and Tina Nogood, on keys, are the witches in the wings — they handle their parts competently, but they're less dazzling. And even that seems purposeful, part of the overall mystery, the schtick of cool detachment.
The best bands of the night were great for entirely the same reason, executed through different methods. Both The Svetlanas and The Black Belles were full-blown experiences, encompassing sound, art, concept and ambiance. Part of The Svetlanas' concept was to pulverize the brick wall between audience and band. The Black Belles reconstructed that wall and then some. And we all loved them for it.