A Dance in the Ether with Quiet Hounds

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“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

Quiet Hounds rebuilt Snake Nation for an evening last weekend in Atlanta.

Quiet Hounds rebuilt Snake Nation for an evening last weekend in Atlanta.

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 boothIMG_3045). 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.

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Meghan charming the crowd.

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.

Norcross attempts to hang himself while a divided Stanley looks on.

Norcross attempts to hang himself while a divided Stanley looks on.

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.”

The incomparable Quiet Hounds and troupe.

The incomparable Quiet Hounds and troupe.

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.

The Beauty Is In the Details: A Night with Quiet Hounds

Every day, we’re all subjected to a million messages.  Emails and the internet.  YouTube. Advertising.  TV.  Radio, Pandora and Spotify.  Sometimes, it all swirls together so loudly that we fail to hear anything.  We miss the details.

On Saturday night, a band of five artists and musicians reminded me that shouldn’t be the way things are.

If you’re a veteran concert goer like me, you become a bit adjusted to the “pattern” of performances.  Doors. 30 minutes of house music.  Opening act plays a 45-minute set. 30 minutes of house music. An hour and a half set by the headliner.  Applause.  Buy merch at the back of the room.  Repeat in six months in the same market.  Of course, there are exceptions – my beloved Bruce and his 3.5 – 4 hour marathon sets, fesitvals, etc.  But by and large, going to a show can be pretty routine.

So what happens when a group of creative visionaries upends that long-established routine?  When they demand that the performance should elevate the music to a higher level?  When a live show should be an experience for the fan from the moment you step foot onto the venue grounds, down to the smallest details?

Expectations are shattered.  And perhaps, the paradigm begins to shift.

Enter the Quiet Hounds, a five-piece indie rock band from Atlanta that has remained a relative enigma to those that have heard about them.  Coming together from previously established acts on the Atlanta scene, the group recorded an impressive EP and released it for free in the summer of 2011. Wanting the music to speak for itself, they chose to identify the members of the band only by an initial. Instead of saturating the Atlanta scene with shows, they have instead played only four shows in their 18-months of existence.  They followed up the 2011 release with another stellar EP in 2012.  More recently, the Hounds released their single, “Beacon Sun,” a tribute to the 13,000 soldiers that died in prison camps at Andersonville, Georgia during the Civil War.

And that’s where this Saturday night in November gets its start.

A projected Hound on the water tower was the first indication that things might be a little different at this show.

Before entering the concert area, we were greeted by two fiery Hounds…the imagery is not lost on this gal.

Booked at The Goat Farm Arts Center in Atlanta, an artists’ collective space, the Quiet Hounds entitled their concert bill, “An Ode to Lost Souls,” continuing their quest to shine a light on the victims of Andersonville. The venue is a collection of old, industrial buildings, hollowed out and used as studio and performance spaces.  Arriving at the venue, it was impossible to forget the reason for the night…from the very moment we stepped out of our car.  Signage with the Quiet Hounds logo pointed the way.  The logo also found its way onto a spotlighted water tower via projection.  And after a short walk up a winding driveway flanked by fall trees, we were greeted two flaming guard hounds masks, carefully metal worked and ablaze, a precursor to the evening that would set fire to my idea of a concert forever.

Turning in my ticket, I was given a carefully scripted program, laying out the “cast” for the evening and the setlist, divided into three “acts.”  A few more steps inside the Goat Farm’s gates led to the evening’s theme projected onto a series of glass windows.

A few steps further down the path, we were faced with a choose your own adventure option (and by this point, I was committed to exploring every option, because I didn’t want to miss anything).  To the left, a smaller building with a metal-worked Hounds sign leaning outside of it and times listed for the screening of the “Beacon Sun” video.  To the right, the performance hall, also adorned with a Hounds sign, and the entrance draped with a dramatic red curtain.

We took option one first, and stepped into a sparsely decorated room.  On the right, a display of photographs of the members of the band taken while shooting the video.  Scattered throughout the room, overstuffed couches and chairs for watching the video.  There were still a few minutes before the screening, so we decided to check out the performance hall.

Parting the curtain, you walked down into a cavernous room, buzzing with anticipatory excitement.  On the right, a bar, a local food truck and coffee shop were set up for pre-show eats and beverages.  On the left, a small merch table with carefully selected and crafted goods – two t-shirts (guy or girl), a dual-disc CD with both of the Quiet Hounds EPs, the CD of Meghan Arias (more to come on this), and a hand-pressed, limited run poster commemorating the evening.  Further into the room, you found a photo station with a Hounds-logo backdrop so you could document your presence at this one-of-a-kind show.

We headed back to the video hall to see “Beacon Sun.”  Having already watched the video online, I knew what to expect.  But having the director, Scott Lansing, introduce the video and talk about the vision around it was a lovely touch.  Filmed on site in Andersonville, the clip is powerful and dramatic, and seeing it on the “big screen” helped to further set the stage for what was to come in the evening.

We returned to the performance hall, and milled amongst the growing crowd.  As the time neared 9:30, a group of string musicians took the stage quietly, sitting in a small circle towards the back of the stage.  The sounds of the string section filled the air, playing soft and hauntingly.  After a short time, Meghan Arias, the “opener” for the evening, stepped on stage – wearing a Hounds mask, seating herself at a keyboard. She was accompanied by a small horn section, who remained on stage for the evening. These fellows, too, were bedecked in their Hounds masks.  Meghan began to play parts of the music for “Beacon Sun,” and then started singing – as if to the lost souls, and then, seemed to call to her “brother Hounds.”  [In the program, this was listed as “Daughter’s Prayer.”] The sound of a swelling chorus began to stream from the back of the room.  We spun around to see the band walking in, dressed in their masked regalia and forming a tight group.

The lost soul.

They continued to sing, marching forward towards the front of the room, where a Civil War soldier had mounted a small-ish stage area to the left.  Spotlighted by a soft amber light, the soldier mimed and turned, an obvious representation of the “lost soul.”  As the Quiet Hounds approached him, they stopped in deference, singing to him for a brief few minutes, with Meghan joining in to make a beautiful dirge.  Then, they continued their processional to the main stage, where they doffed their masks and launched into the music.

And oh, the music.  Taking off with a staccato percussion intro into “Pocket Change,” the show began.  And with every passing moment, the layering and depth of these songs came alive.  Multi-instramentalists, the night saw them seamlessly trading out their instruments as necessary. Lighting seemed to be carefully selected for each song, and as they moved to more fast-paced songs, white lighting popped, giving glimpses of the wild-haired, smiling players who were obviously in their element. Their gratitude for the crowd, at my best guess numbering between 400 – 500 very unlost souls, was palpable, and they played their hearts out for us.  For a little over an hour, I think I must have stopped breathing as the music flowed from their instruments and voices to my ears.  I was completely wrapped up in the music, the artistry, and the beauty of it all. From Hound E conducting the crowd with a percussion mallet while he sang to indulging the crowd in sing-along choruses as they went, every moment was spontaneous, although the band stuck to the program as they had it listed.  And even a slight instrumentation issue at the beginning of “Calling All Gamma Rays” seemed to give band members a chance to step up and fill the hole. The high points of the evening for me included a new version of an “old” song called “Danger Love,” “Too Young, Too Wise,” “Worn Crush Corduroy,” “I Get Up” and the closing number, “Hemlock.”

Quiet Hounds on Stage

The Hounds on stage – Hallelujah-ing from a Megaphona.

And then, it was done.  No encore, no overly-dramatic ending, just a classy “Thank you for being part of this night” and an exit from the stage.  As the crowd dispersed, band members drifted amongst us, talking about the night, thanking us for our support… There was such a large part of me that didn’t want the evening to end, that we hung on, taking our time walking out.

Since I started keeping count in 2004, I have attended over 500 concerts/shows.  I have loved many of them, and almost every one of the most memorable moments of my life has been the result of a live performance.  But this Quiet Hounds show has no parallel.  It was simply the best concert I have ever attended in my life.  No combination of words I could write could capture the emotions this show stirred in me.  The care that they took in the details of the night, the sheer power of the music – everything seemed to serve as a reminder that everyone one of us is part of something much larger.  And their constant focus on the theme seemed to charge all of us with the responsibility to ensure that the future doesn’t forget the past.  Five days have passed, and I have thought about this performance every day, replaying parts of it in my head and on my computer.

To the gentlemen of Quiet Hounds, I say thank you.  Thank you for inviting me to listen to your music and take part in this truly incredible evening.  In every true music fan’s world, there are moments that change how they absorb music.  The landscape of my musical world is now permanently altered in a profound way because of your show.  I will expect more from my music, from the live performances I see.  You have set the bar.  Thank you.

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