Jim Phelps reviews Songs:Molina – a tribute performance which took place at The Brudenell Social Club on 24 September.
When the great pyramids
Dragged themselves out to this spot
A sickness sank into the little one’s heart
Mama said son that’s just the cold
That’s just the emptiness
It’s being alone in the dark
I never got to see Jason Molina play. He was a singular talent, tragically taken at the age of 39. He left behind a beguiling and extraordinary catalogue of music: his fragile tenor instantly-recognisable across 16 full-length albums and numerous singles and EPs. He sang in an otherworldly voice that bolted from speaker cabinets. His voice quivered as he spoke of love, loss, spectral animals, protection spells and the ghosts that haunted him. It is a remarkable body of work. And if this article has to begin with death, let it be a celebration from here on out.
I first heard Molina’s music after an old friend gave me his seminal work Magnolia Electric Co. Listening to a new band, an image of them forms in your mind’s eye, but in Molina’s case I couldn’t picture him – he could have been 16 years old or 65, he could have been black or white. He seemed completely intangible. I played the record over and over. It simultaneously felt panoramic and claustrophobic, driven by an alchemic band of players and steered by Molina’s heartbroken lyrics. Hearing those songs, it is hard to believe that the band that cut the album only existed for three days, and then split. Some songs were completed on a first take, with Molina conducting the band live in the studio. It is widely considered his finest moment, but really all his records are possessed of some talismanic quality, forged from vapour and recorded on the run.
Did you really believe / C’mon, did you really believe
That everyone makes it out? / Almost no one makes it out
The stage in the Brudenell’s Community Room is lit with candid photos of a smiling Molina. A selection of his solo recordings quietly announces itself on the PA. The merch table is doing a sterling trade. The band, performing under the moniker Songs:Molina, have a two-week European tour in front of them. Tonight is opening night.
They arrive on stage at 8:15pm and Molina’s long-serving guitarist Jason Evans Groth thanks everyone for coming, before apologising to say that he’ll be saying “thank you” a lot tonight, promising to play “for a f…..g long time”. He welcomes (and thanks) guest vocalist Timothy Showalter, who hidden behind a wide-brimmed hat, aviators, long hair and bushy beard, couldn’t be a more different stage presence than Molina himself. Over the course of the night he will prove himself more than capable of channelling the essence of the band’s old leader, but for now makes a point of informing us that he won’t get through tonight without crying.
“Every time we do this it’s different” Groth tells us. The band have a final fiddle with their tuners, nod to each other and strike up the first tentative chords of Gray Tower. Any nerves are forgotten in four bars and soon they’re already onto Just Be Simple, with Mike Brenner bathing the room in gorgeous, wistful lap steel. A smouldering spotlight over his shoulder illuminates his right hand as he picks out the notes. Showalter nails the delivery as the song moves through resignation (“Why put a new address on the same old loneliness?”), vindictiveness (“If heaven’s really coming back, I hope it has a heart attack”), confession (“Everything you hated me for, honey, there was so much more”) and its coda, longing to “try and try and try to be simple again”. An unsteady meditation on how you can try your damnedest and still end up where you started.
It is evident that it will be an emotional night, and drummer Mark Rice tackles vocal duties for the next two songs, giving Showalter a little time to pull himself together. Erin Osmon joins the band on stage to treat us an excerpt from her biography Riding With The Ghost. If Molina’s life had a mythical quality to it, the myth has only become more defined and fully-formed in the stories she has collected and so generously shares over the evening’s course. The band stare at their boots, looking up and shooting each other grins as her words bring back fond memories. The audience laughs as Molina tears up to a recording session in a rented cop car, resprayed in black and Sade blasting out from its speakers. They listen reverently to the genesis of Hammer Down. Smiles break out as Molina is asked by artist Will Schaff for direction to help design an album cover, only to be offered the oblique instruction: “owls, pyramids and magnolias”.
Back to the music. A deeper turn is taken as Ring The Bell is brought out, transmuted from its understated album recording into a psychedelic monster that builds and builds with all three guitarists soloing at once and two of them in tears. Steve Albini’s Blues follows shortly thereafter with its suffocating menace and phantom visions “on the bridge out of Hammond”. This is a song with a lyric so complete that it seems to say everything by really saying nothing at all; refusing to offer a clue as to whether it’s weary relief from leaving some unspeakable horror behind; or a premonition, knowing that you’re gunning straight toward it, drawn magnetically over that bridge and straight into its jaws. The band are in no hurry with this one and the song goes past at a funereal pace, the slow drums pounding like the big diesel rigs Molina sees through his wiper blades.
Devotional prayer for the lost Whip-Poor-Will bookends the first set. It all becomes too much for Showalter. His voice falters and cracks and he turns away from the crowd, his shoulders shaking. Groth steps up to the mic to take over from his comrade. There will be a lot of finishing each other’s lines tonight. Showalter regroups just before the song’s conclusion and joins in with the triumphant four-part harmonies. Now it’s the audience’s turn to wipe away a few tears.
Hold on Magnolia, I hear that station bell ring
You might be holding the last light I see
Before the dark finally gets a hold of me
Uptempo number The Dark Don’t Hide It opens the second set and Molina’s long-time friend and collaborator Alasdair Roberts joins the band on stage. He recounts how the pair met in England in the 1990s and his sessions in Nebraska recording Ghost Tropic, a real séance of a record where Molina’s sparse instrumentation lurches up through tape loops and birdsong. Roberts plays a trio of songs, concluding with The Ocean’s Nerves from the aforementioned LP. It comes on like a slow-motion assault, like being run over by a glacier.
Showalter takes a heartfelt moment to tell us about his relationship with Jason Molina and his love for the records he made, offering a wry thank you for being “the soundtrack to many a make-out session in my apartment back in 2003”.
A passionate rendition of Hammer Down is sung by Groth. Eyes closed, pounding his Telecaster, his wonderful half-rock, half-country lead lines a treat for the ears. John Henry Split This Heart’s monster opening riff dies down to the whisper of Michael Kapinus’ piano, and the thrilling refrain of Lioness casts a trance over the crowd.
The band have a real weight behind them. It would be impossible for them not to – the spectacle of the occasion turns the room into a lightning rod. They shape shift on stage, treading delicately through the negative space of quieter songs and then diving in headfirst in all the right places. When it becomes too much for one person, someone else jumps in to sing their part. The songs sound as good as they’ve ever been and from moment to moment it is overwhelming in all the right ways. The reverence and love for Molina just pours out of the musicians and enraptures the audience. There is redemption to be found between the notes. You can’t help feeling that, if it can be this good without him, how good would it have been with him?
While the predominant mood of the evening has been one of smiles and celebration, the chords that announce Hold On Magnolia raise the hairs on the back of the neck and spread a chill through the room. There’s no messing around here: Magnolia is a primal song that sounds like it could be a thousand years old; a song that conjures hope and hopelessness in equal measure. its protagonist finally accepting the fate that he knows is speeding his way. A stranger’s palm slips silently into mine. To my left a lady’s lip trembles as she dabs her eyes. A grown man standing next to me is openly weeping. It is as if Molina’s casket is being lowered into the earth in front of us.
As slow as molasses, the warmth creeps back in over the trio of closing songs, which conclude with Farewell Transmission. Showalter gives up on his guitar mid-song, and handing it to Groth begins to work the crowd like a conductor. One-by-one the players drop out, leaving only the most skeletal of drum beats as Showalter and the crowd repeat the coda together: “Long dark blues…Listen”. Those four words have travelled a long way. 15 years ago in a Chicago music studio they chanced their way onto tape in a moment of improvisation; now they’re being ritually chanted by a roomful of strangers halfway across the world.
I’ll streak his blood across my beak
And dust my feathers with his ashes
I can feel his ghost breathing down my back
I will try and know whatever I try
I will be gone, but not forever
Molina’s life had a folkloric quality to it. His albums were Rosetta Stones filled with ghosts, moons, owls, blood, swinging blades and long highways. Every lyric is an incantation; every line warrants an essay. Small pinholes for big confessions to escape through.
In death his mystique has only grown. And if we don’t believe in God and Heaven and Judgement and The Everlasting that’s OK, because Jason Molina can live on without all that and indeed does live on. He lives on in the memories of those who knew him and played with him. He lives on hunkered deep down between the grooves of black vinyl. And if we’re all here tonight because of him, then the music becomes something more than just the songs; it becomes a spell to conjure his presence. He endures and becomes manifest in the room with us and through us, and that’s a kind of everlasting isn’t it?
Set 1 Set 2
Grey Tower The Dark Don’t Hide It
Tigress Captain Badass
Just Be Simple Come Back To Your Man
Leave The City (Our Flesh In Dust) Defenders
Hot Black Silk The Ocean’s Nerves
Ring The Bell I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost
Old Black Hen Hammer Down
Steve Albini’s Blues John Henry Split This Heart
Hold On Magnolia
Being In Love
Blue Chicago Moon
Mike Brenner – lap steel
Jason Evans Groth – guitar, vocals
Michael Kapinus – keyboards, vocals
Mark Rice – drums, vocals
Pete Schreiner – bass
Tim Showalter – guitar, vocals
Erin Osmon – spoken word
Alasdair Roberts – acoustic guitar, vocals
Jim writes for Leeds Living on contemporary music, bringing gigs alive for readers who couldn’t be there.