Dirty Beaches Show Review @ Brillobox – 5/18
Alex Zhang Hungtai, the Canadian-Taiwanese post-modern greaser behind Dirty Beaches, appears detached from our current place (or any place, for that matter) in time.Â His music (re:persona) hums with the dark, analog vibe of a burnt out Blue VelvetÂ VHS while plumbing theÂ rockabilly lineage shared by Elvis and the NYC no-wave legends Suicide, effectively veiling the innocent come-ons of post-war, American pop music with thick, Lynchian dread. And while that may paint Mr. HungtaiÂ as a relatively astute scholar of 20th century culture, nothing about the finished product seems academic. His debut album Badlands transcends those nascent descriptors listed above and manages to coalesce into somethingÂ otherworldlyÂ and timeless. Badlands isÂ the soundtrack to an early Brando film that never existed, a jukebox 45′ stuck on repeat in someone’s nightmare, the album Elvis would have made if he moved to the Lower East Side in 1979.
So, of course I wasÂ plaguedÂ with one, burningÂ questionÂ as I walked up thoseÂ lonelyÂ stairs to Brillobox’s second floor at 10:32pm last Wednesday: how would an album so indebted to the way it sounds on record perform live? My answer: I didn’t expect that.
That is to say while Mr. Hungtai’s Dirty Beaches sounded as raw, dark and unhinged as it did repeating on my iTunes earlier that day, his stage presence was alluring and dangerous, amplifying the atmosphere found on Badlands to an unsettling degree. The stage setup was simple: a guitar, a handful of looping pedals with the programmed riffs of each song, and an old mic that produced the same washed out vocals found on record. Hungtai opened the set with the nightmarish shrieks of “Speedway King” before settling into the drugged out, rockabilly swagger of “Sweet 17.”
For the guitar freak out mid-song, he brandished his white fender and stomped into the thick of the crowd, pushing and driving his way into the mob then thrashing around in wails of feedback. Some folks pushed back and spilled some beer, but Hungtai never broke character. He got back up on stage and proceeded to Â play handful of old and new songs in the same manner: belting out his breathy, sinister croon over the looping madness of tracks like “Horses” and “A Hundred Highways” then pausing for moments of antagonistic, crowd shoving guitar solos.
The set ended with aÂ gorgeousÂ rendering of “Lord Knows Best,” one of a pair of Badlands tracks (the other being “True Blue”) that could seriously play on 3WS’ Sunday Night Diner without anyone noticing. Hungtai performed the sweetly serene waltz with a smoldering air, turning down theÂ nihilisticÂ energy he showed for the majority of the set to almost a whisper. That contrast brought the track’s chorus (“The Lord knows best that I/don’t give a damn/about anyone/but you,”) into beautiful, sepia toned focus.
He finished the song and thanked everyone for coming out, adding that we should buy some merch so he can make it back home. I watched him as he took his guitar off and walked over to the smaller amp, throwing his leather jacket on, and putting a pack of Marlboro Reds in his front pocket. He slicked back his jet black pompadour and walked Â off the stage and I realized that this wasn’t a persona he was playing; he wasn’t aping Alan Vega and Elvis to get the attention of taste making blogs. When Hungtai walked off the stage it was all simply, without hesitation, his life.
Dirty Beaches – “Sweet 17”
Dirty Beaches – “Lord Knows Best”