Dungen and Woods at The Picador
Iowa City, IA August 10, 2009
When I told my wife I was going to go see Dungen perform on Monday night, she was a little concerned at having to manage the kids by herself. She wasn’t feeling well, and the idea of having to contend with two children while I indulged in the sonic glory of a Swedish psychedelic rock band didn’t sit well with her. I assured her that I would be around for most of the evening and could even pick up one of the kids from vacation bible school later that night.
Noting the time, she asked the obvious, “So when does the show start?”
“The doors open at 9:00pm” I replied.
My wife let out a laugh when she caught me yawning about ten minutes later, stating the obvious, “You’re too old to go out tonight!”
She was right in some sense, but I bargained that the evening would feature two bands, Dungen and openers Woods. Calculating a half-hour set by Woods meant that Dungen would potentially hit the stage by 10:30pm and I could realistically be on the road home by 12:30am. I could function on five hours of sleep and make up the difference the following night.
Via Spin Magazine
I was met with two surprises at The Picador when I arrived that night. One was that the air conditioning at the club had apparently died. There was a huge fan circulating air at the top of the stairs in a frugal attempt to make sure patrons didn’t die of heat exhaustion while watching a performance on the second-floor stage. Thankfully, a cool summer rain had lowered the temperature on what’s proving to be an otherwise hot Iowa August. There would be no heat related deaths from tonight’s proceedings.
The second surprise had more of an impact on my well-being: two unannounced openers in addition to the two bands on the bill. This would obviously render my previous calculations irrelevant and it was clear that I would be settling in for a very long night.
I was a little restless by the time Woods began their set, but thanks to the strength of their material, I’m glad I toughed it out through the unannounced performers.
What struck me first about Woods was how vocalist and guitarist Jeremy Earl used an old fashion microphone that limited the range of his natural voice to victrola midranges-rendering his weak tenor in an eerie light. Think Galaxie 500-era Dean Wareham as played through a 78 record.
The other strange, yet endearing, element of Woods set was the gentleman-G. Lucas Crane-who sat on the floor in front of homemade storage unit that held various effect pedals and portable cassette players. Two blankets cushioned his knees as he twiddled knobs in the fashion of an overexcited NASA control room member. Covering his mouth was an old pair of Telex headphones-the kind you would find in your school’s A/V department-that he used as a makeshift microphone that made his intonations sound even more creepy than Earl’s. Working the various devices in front of him, Crane created endless aural landscapes-some of which were made by manipulating pre-recorded cassettes that he appeared to speed up/slow down as needed.
The rest of Woods did nice emulations of Velvets guitar freakouts that frequently went on for extended periods. The bassist and drummer occasionally interchanged instruments and on some songs, ignoring the bass altogether in favor of a cheap Japanese guitar that was run through a tiny, 10-watt Orange amp. As a matter of fact, nearly every instrument that Woods used this evening looked like it was pulled from a second-rate pawn shop or lifted during a community clean up day, when townspeople pull out their unwanted items to be hauled to the dump only for scavengers to raid the piles of junk prior to the city crews arrival.
It looked like a matter of necessity instead of one of pretense, but wherever the members got their instruments and toys of sound, they played a genuine set of honest rock that perfectly suited the headliners. The best of the lot was “The Number” from their most recent Songs Of Shame, which turned into a haunting ballad with all of the members seated and quietly adding minor instrumentation while watching Earl strum a battered acoustic guitar.
There was no limitation of Dungen’s equipment, just the muscular lines of vintage gear meant to convey the most accurate tones of the band’s late 60’s homage.
In Dungen’s world, rock music ended after side three of Electric Ladyland, and I suppose you could do worse.
You could do no better, however, than Dungen in that unadorned club on Monday night. Packed on a tight stage too small for such EZ Wider moments, the band transform a bland atmosphere into a kaleidoscope of sounds. There was no place that I or any of the other dedicated fans that cornered the stage would have rather been that evening, and by the second song, I couldn’t have told you what time it was or cared about how little sleep I would be facing when the night was over.
Dungen is not a band for those who don’t find magic in extended solos. Not only solos of the guitar variety, but Fender Rhodes solos, drum solos, and yes, even flute solos. If there are any readers that consider progressive rock the anti-thesis of rock music, then Dungen is not going to be your bag.
Gustav Ejstes was barely able to fill out his faded Levis, but he shook his ass like he had one. When he wasn’t behind the Rhodes, flute or acoustic guitar, he shook his locks in time with a tambourine, looking a tad like Robert Plant circa ’69. “When I get home, I’m going to cut this fucking thing off!” he said while struggling to remove the hair from his perspiring face. Personally, I don’t believe him. Ejstes may challenge Dungen’s tag of “retro,” but there’s nothing on stage or coming from the speakers that will dissuade me from thinking that his hair, his music, and his inspiration come from a forgone era in rock.
It’s clear that Ejstes is taken with the touring members of Dungen, who now seem to be a regular part of the band dynamic in the studio too. Guitarist Reine Fiske-a progressive rock staple in Sweden-did not stray once from his Fender Strat powered through a Marshall stack. These were all the tools he needed as he alternated between face-melting freakouts and gentle guitar textures.
The rhythm section featured Mattias Gustavsson scaling the fret board of his bass (and looking like the son of Noel Redding) while keeping a close eye on drummer Johan Holmegard. Holmegard has a very jazzy feel to his drumming and he tunes his toms with a wet sound, again, another nod to the rhythm section of the Experience.
The four musicians eloquently controlled every ebb and flow of the set, seemingly unaware that the sound guy had to exchange the microphone cord to Reine’s mic three times, that there was a ladder leaning against the wall directly in front of the stage right pa, and that they had played precariously close to the last call time limit.
I had forgotten about the time too, which is another way of saying that Dungen played a captivating set, one that was worth the few extra yawns the following day and one that provided a beautiful soundtrack to my brief dreams that night.
Sleep may be a valuable commodity, but Dungen proved to be a much more worthy one.