“Some things supersede order. Sometimes you need a harmony outside - and in. I ring that note. We are a crowd here tonight seeking just such an elixir. Something to soothe, yes, and to heal. But also to excite… We are mixed crowd of many different needs, but we’ve come here tonight with a singular want. To be elevated, to be lifted up, just for a moment, out of our daily doldrums our aches and pains, this Snake Nation shanty town spirit that shackles us all too often. We want just for a night, just one night, to dance in the ether and get rid of order.” – Clark Stanley
On Saturday night on a stage inside a late 19th century industrial building on the edge of Midtown Atlanta, a battle for the ages occurred. Authority and morality clashed with rebelliousness and creativity, a tempest set afire by Atlanta’s paradigm-smashing band Quiet Hounds. “The Last Days of the Snake Nation” was part concert, part historical lesson, and part grand fiction – and if you listened closely, if you soaked in all of the evening’s intricate trappings, you may have walked away inspired or cautioned by what played out on stage.
As you approached the entrance for the show, a man in a top hat and tails awaited your ticket – the first clue that something may be different about the night. Behind him, men and women in late 19th century period costume milled amongst arriving concert-goers. At the doors of the performance hall, a program was handed to you with a flourish and a dramatic red velvet curtain was swept aside for you to enter the world of the Quiet Hounds.
Leading up to the event, the band’s social media pages had flashed cryptic calls-to-arms and images: tin-type photos and introductions to two characters, Jonathan Norcross and Clark Stanley. Unless you’re a history buff, the names may mean nothing to you. But the Hounds intended to resurrect these historical figures and bring them to life.
A brief history:
Norcross, the fourth mayor of Atlanta, is often seen as the man who helped to shape the thriving young city by establishing many of its laws and instituting order. In his successful contest for mayor of the newly named Atlanta (previously known as Marthasville), he became head of the Moral Party and ran against Leonard Simpson, the leader of the Free and Rowdy party, which supported a more creative, less restricted lifestyle. In his role, Norcross also served as head of the police, and worked deliberately to drive out the city’s “undesirables.”
Clark Stanley was a cowboy from Texas who was literally a snake oil salesman. After spending time studying with a Hopi medicine man, he bottled and marketed his snake oil liniment as medicine. He traveled from state to state, selling his liniment with an elaborate act that included live rattlesnakes. Eventually, the government examined Stanley’s solution and declared that it was not medicine, instead mostly mineral oil. The term “snake oil salesman” arose out of Stanley’s downfall.
The Goat Farm Arts Center’s Goodson Yard performance hall had been turned into early Atlanta’s Snake Nation, an area of the city that was (to quote Atlanta Magazine) “an enclave of log cabins and wood huts along old Whitehall Road (now Peters Street). It reportedly earned its nickname from snake oil peddlers, but was home to far more unsavory characters.” The inhabitants of Snake Nation sided with the Free and Rowdy party. These individuals, along with residents of similar areas Murrell’s Row and Slab Town, were the types that Norcross felt threatened the burgeoning young Atlanta.
There’s no record that Norcross and Stanley ever had direct interaction, but in 1850 and 1851, there was an ongoing struggle between the Morals and the Free and Rowdies, one attempting to help the city flourish through capitalism and order, while the other sought to hold on to the young city’s individuality and their own free spirit lifestyle. Later that year, citizens of Atlanta who sided with the Moral Party disguised themselves (in white caps) and invaded Snake Nation, whipping the male residents and chasing them off, as well as “rounding up” the women to shuttle them off to outside of the city where they were released with a warning to not return. Snake Nation was burned to the ground, and it was years before anything was built there again.
As concert goers filled into the performance hall, costumed actors milled about, arm wrestling and talking loudly about the state of politics in young Atlanta and Snake Nation. “Loose women” hung on men’s arms, and laughter filled the air. Areas of the hall were set with period furniture, and Clark Stanley’s snake oil wagon even held down its own corner selling its wares (and doubling as a merch booth). The stage was set – literally and figuratively – for a night in Snake Nation. The program had a simple list of four acts: Elixir of Truth, Of All That Is Possible, The Clash, and finally The End of Snake Nation, accompanied by a “report” on the “candidates,” Clark Stanley and Jonathan Norcross.
Exactly at 9 PM, a contingent of well-dressed men entered the room, talking loudly, trailed by the band, bedecked in their customary masks. This was the beginning of Act I, Elixir of Truth. Here was Norcross, making his way from the back of the room through the crowd, shaking hands and petitioning members of the audience to vote for him. As he made his way to the stage, he commanded a scribe to “write that down,” and began his stump speech, calling for refinement and structure. As he railed against the Free and Rowdy party, whores, pimps, and bums, a small number in the crowd called back in support, with others booing him. Suddenly, he was interrupted by another group, making its way to the front of the room, laughing and mocking the pulpit-like speech of Norcross. Clark Stanley jumped onto the stage, bantering with the audience in a bawdy fashion, telling them about his snake oil liniment, but more about what the forced implementation of order and structure could mean. For nearly 20 minutes, the Stanley and Norcross went back and forth, and the argument peaked, with Stanley offering a “balm” in the form of song, “proof of what Snake Nation is made of.”
The band appeared on stage, launching into a refrain to begin Act II. The lead Hound made his way to the stage through the crowd, carrying a lantern. Once he clambered onto the stage, the band members shed their masks, and moved into a blistering set, rattling off older songs interspersed with songs from the band’s latest album, The Wild Hunt, including “Calling All Gamma Rays,” “Good Bones,” “Night Parade,” “Worn Crush Corduroy,” and the well-loved “Southern Charm.”
A second drummer, Julian Dorio from Athens band The Whigs, was introduced (with a hilarious joke about the Whig political party that I’m sure not everyone in the crowd caught) for part of set, just in time for some of the night’s more up tempo songs, including “Young Clover,” my personal favorite, the percussion-crazy “Dangerlove,” and “Hemlock.”
After “Hemlock,” Norcross and Stanley retook the stage and begin a heated argument. Stanley made a fool of Norcross by joking with him about his relationship with a noted prostitute, and the two men engaged in a brawl that moved off stage. They were followed by the lead Hound. As the music escalated, above the stage, the audience could view see shadows of the Norcross and Stanley in an embittered fight, ending with Norcross standing over Stanley’s still body.
Quiet Hounds have always surrounded themselves with an amazing cast of musicians, including an exceptional brass section made up of Dave Daly (who also assisted with some arrangements on the band’s latest album, The Wild Hunt), Russell Sauve, and Umcolisi Terrell. They’ve officially brought another one of those accompanying members, Meghan Arias, into the band, making their number six. The newest member’s presence in the band was noticeable, adding a dimension to both the performance and the music itself. She took lead vocal on the song following the brawl, “Art of War.” She proved her mettle when her mic went out at her keyboard in the first lines of the song. She didn’t hesitate to step forward, grab the lead mic, and completely floor the crowd with a new rendition of the song.
Following this dramatic scene, the stage darkened, the band stepped into the shadows, and a bloodied Norcross crossed the stage, fashioning a noose from a rope hanging from the ceiling. The lead Hound followed him with an acoustic guitar, singing “Weathervane,” the closing and most emotional track on The Wild Hunt. After slipping the noose around his neck, he stands, staring at his hands streaked with blood, rubbing them together. Before Norcross can hang himself for his actions, an equally bloodied Stanley comes up behind him, knife in hand, evidently of two minds about what he should do. In the end, he cuts the noose down, and the two quietly exit the stage together.
The near-end of Norcross also signaled the near-end of the set, and the band closed out the performance with “Wild Light” and a rousing new song, “If the World.”
As they closed the song, the band introduced the actors that played Norcross and Stanley, “distinguished guest drummer” Dorio, and the horn section, thanking the Goat Farm for hosting, and the crowd for attending. Then all the players and band stepped up, sharing hugs and handshakes, joining hands, and chorusing out into a well-deserved bow. It was a defining moment for Quiet Hounds, a group that have found their purpose, who are clearly in love with what they are doing. You could see it in their faces and smiles – and they want to take us along on this adventure with them. To quote one of their songs,”we’ve found our place, so come along, we pave our way, our own parade.”
It’s exhilarating to watch it and be part of this movement. The performance was, from this viewer’s perspective, the best they’ve ever been on stage. The music was richer, the band was in sync, there was more banter with the crowd.The story of Norcross and Stanley well-acted, enhancing the music, and defining a purpose for the evening. And it was impossible not to see that the band was having a blast. This is what the future of music should look like. The elaborate theatrics, the historical backdrop, the hours that went into prepping all of the small details – all of these things are the hallmark of a group of artists intent on shifting the conversation about art. About creating art that engages and lifts us up.
So what’s the meaning of the night? Do you side with the Morals or the Rowdies? You’re left to determine it all for yourself. But if you were listening, the message was there. One of the Hounds said it best during the set. “You know, some of us Hounds feel right at home here in Snake Nation. Some of us, not so much. I’d like to think we all get along pretty good. Some of us may disagree and burn like a beacon sun in the distance, angered, imprisoned, frustrated by the discourse that surrounds us. But we know we’ve been here before. We’ve seen this before. And we remember a place and a time where we didn’t always have the choices that we have today…and we know deep down inside, we always find a way to come out clean in the end.”
If there was one thing to mar the evening for those of us there to hear the music, it was the unbelievable level of crowd noise and disrespect for the performance. Ironic, actually. Here QH is putting on an incredible event about extolling art and creativity, about finding balance between conformity and individuality, and at times you could barely hear them above the din of people who were clearly not there for the art. (We won’t even discuss the guy who climbed on someone’s shoulders in the front row so that his friends could take a photo of him in front of the band right in the middle of the show.) Nowhere was the utter disrespect of all the damn talking more present that when the lead Hound indulged in a bit of uncharacteristic sentimentality to introduce their historically-influenced song “Beacon Sun.” By the way, this song is a tribute to the thousands of soldiers who died in a Civil War interment camp – if any song in the entire set deserved a few moments of silence, it was this one. One of the band members even issued a frustrated “Shhhh” into his microphone as they began playing it. Unbelievable. This isn’t the first concert I’ve been to recently where this has been a problem, and maybe I was just more sensitive to it at this show because I’d literally been looking forward to this show for months. I typically stay away from poking the sleeping bear on my blog, but SERIOUSLY?
Music, art…these things are personal. What moves each of us is different. I try to keep my feelings out of it when trying to write quasi-legitimate reviews. But sometimes, it only seems appropriate to add that personal element in. I’ve been a rather vocal proponent of this band since its early days – I was lucky enough that a friend (love you, Allison!) clued me into them. I’m not sure that I can appropriately put words to what this band’s music has done for me. It came into my life when a lot of things were a mess, and when I felt pretty lost and uninspired, emotionally drained by the serious illness of one of my parents. I pride myself on my ability to write, to “create” things, and I was at a point where I was completely empty. For me, there’s nothing more devastating to feel like that well is dry, to feel like you’ve lost the very thing that defines you. Quiet Hounds played a big role in reinspiring me. The lyrics, the music, the performance, but more importantly, the thoughts behind it all, their camaraderie, their singular purpose to change the way people view music and art… For me, those things are incredibly meaningful and powerful. They move me to find ways to contribute to something greater. And that’s really what it’s about, right? So on this Thanksgiving, let me say a public “thank you” to this collection of artists who has brightened my life with their music.
Quiet Hounds have graciously made the entire Last Days of Snake Nation performance viewable on their website at http://www.quiethounds.com.