In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about shows we’ve seen where the opener eclipsed the headliner.
In 1996, I spent my first year at Boston’s Emerson College going to a lot of shows—for various reasons. I enjoy music; that would be one reason. Another would be that Boston (and surrounding cities like Cambridge) got a lot of touring shows I never would have experienced back in Dallas-Fort Worth. But often, far more importantly, I was lonely. I had graduated high school at 16, so I went away to university especially ill-equipped for making new friends. I was spotty-faced, sarcastic, and uncomfortable around strangers. I smoked a lot of pot, which made me clam up in crowds. And the few social groups I had, like the school comedy magazine I joined, were staffed with the exact same maladjusted introverts. So I went to shows. A lot of them.
That meant I also went to shows by bands I only kind-of liked or even was just barely familiar with—which was how I ended up seeing Archers Of Loaf at The Middle East. I kind of liked Archers Of Loaf, though they never really moved me. A few days before, I’d even committed the grievous error (one of many) of telling my roommate, a super-hip New York guy who’d interned at Matador Records, that I thought Eric Bachmann sort of sounded like Bush’s Gavin Rossdale. His reaction was stony disbelief at what a lame asshole he’d been saddled with. But as a way of proving that, no, hey, I was just sayin’, Archers are cool—but also just as a way of getting out of that constantly tension-filled dorm room—I went and saw the band anyway, thinking maybe hearing them live would convert me.
It didn’t really, but I did come back raving about the opener, a weirdo junk-rock group called Skeleton Key. I say “junk” quite literally: The band set itself up around a rummage sale’s worth of crap—a pile of rusted chairs, propane tanks, statues, a red wagon—that its wild-haired percussionist, Rick Lee, stood in the middle of, flailing against it all in rhythm. Bassist/vocalist Erik Sanko’s songs took their cues from that clangor, filling them with derailed-train stop-starts, busted-microphone vocals, toy record player loops, and grotesque, outsider art lyrics about circus performers and creepy morticians. I’d never really seen anything like it, even amid that year I spent seeing a lot. When Archers Of Loaf followed up with regular dudes playing regular guitar rock, it couldn’t help but seem unexciting in comparison. I left about six songs in.
On my way out, I grabbed Skeleton Key’s first, self-titled EP (my spurned roommate’s vengeful verdict: “It just sounds like a nerdy Primus”), and later I picked up its debut, Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon. And while I played the hell out of songs like “The World’s Most Famous Undertaker” over the next few months, I have to say that they lost some of their luster off stage, and I eventually lost touch with the group.
I was surprised, yet heartened, to find out recently that Skeleton Key is actually still going, despite having pared down its junkyard set-up and lost some of its original lineup over the years, with members splitting off into similarly minded groups like Enon and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Most recently, it looks like the band even played some gigs with Alkaline Trio just a few months back, still opening for bands they don’t totally fit in with. Hopefully they’re also still turning some other bored and lonely kids’ nights upside down.