Fans of Shellac‘s notorious between song question-and-answer sessions didn’t have to wait long for their fix at Thursday’s night Turner Hall show. Thanks to an equipment malfunction on stage right (Steve Albini’s guitar strap bit the dust after more than 25 years of dedicated service), bassist Bob Weston was forced to launch right into soliciting questions from the audience. On a night when many of Shellac’s familiar hits were dished out—did they follow the opening number with a rousing “My Black Ass” from At Action Park? Yup! Did they run an epic, sprawling “Billiard Player Song” into the punishing “Wingwalker?” You know it!—Weston’s classic bit produced many familiar repeat moments to any Shellac concert vet. Did someone ask what Weston thought of Milwaukee? You bet! (“Indifferent.”) Did someone prompt Weston to say the name of their band or a friend’s band into the microphone? Sure thing! (Okay, who from Tornavalanche was at the show?)
But once the functional wardrobe issues were solved, Albini, Weston, and atomic-clock drummer Todd Trainer found a solid groove in what we’re pretty sure was the first Milwaukee visit by the band since a 2009 performance at Club Garibaldi. The set pulled from nearly every Shellac release, leaning heavily on 2014’s excellent Dude Incredible, but surprisingly shutting out 2000’s 1000 Hurts. Not that we’re complaining—”My Black Ass” into “Copper” from 1998’s Terraform was seamless, and Incredible tracks “Riding Bikes,” “Compliant,” and “All the Surveyors” pummeled with a deliberate scrape and thwack.
Trainer was handed the spotlight for a thoroughly kickass drum solo in the middle of “Steady As She Goes” from 2007’s Excellent Italian Greyhound, as Albini and Weston retreated to the far recesses of the Turner Hall stage, vanishing from sight while continuing to vamp underneath Trainer’s considerable chops. Todd Trainer and Bob Weston are easily one of the most distinctive, autonomous rhythm sections in all of rock; for all that’s said about Albini’s signature metal-on-metal guitar tone, Shellac’s drum-and-bass rumble are a foundation over which any guitarist would be giddy to layer riffs. Is it any wonder Weston responded to “who are your top three bass players?” with a resounding “Me, me, and me?” For the record, he later cited Clint Conley, Lou Barlow. Solid choices!
As for the new material, the names escaped us—Weston claimed one was called “Gravy Is For Losers,” but we’re pretty sure he just had it out for gravy on this night (dropping more q-and-a science: “You use it when your meat’s too dry! Maybe cook your meat like an adult and you won’t need it!”). The new stuff featured more of the deliberate rhythmic exercises one expects from the band, while one tune shuffled with an almost uncharacteristically danceable funk. We know one new jam was about karaoke because Albini said as much. But that’s neither here nor there. It’s more notable that when leading into the aforementioned “Billiard Player Song,” he delivered a heartfelt and honest salute to Wisconsin punk rock of yore. “There was a time when all of the best punk rock came out of Wisconsin,” Albini said, going on to deliver shouts out to classic acts like Appliances, Killdozer, Couch Flambeau, Die Kreuzen, and Oil Tasters.
About “Billiard Player Song”: for all the hilarious and acerbic moments that a Shellac show delivers, this song, a non-album track from an early 7-inch single, is when the set got heavy. A lament about the overly masculine, toxic expectations men put upon themselves in relationships, its shimmering chords hang in the air during an ambient spoken word breakdown that’s different every night. Every tour? Every single time it’s performed? Who knows, but no matter how Albini chooses to fill the time, it’s always compelling. An equally dramatic soliloquy was inserted into the middle of “Wingwalker” as Albini launched into an observation about how distance between people causes them to see their fellow humans as “dust.” Unfortunately, inviting a Milwaukee audience to participate in spirited question-and-answer sessions tends to open the smart-ass floodgates, and the poetry was punctuated by some occasionally boneheaded heckling. Undaunted, the bass picked up again and the band slammed into the remainder of the song, unfazed and perhaps completely ignorant of the running commentary.
Shellac will turn the big 3-0 in a couple years, but they continue to attack their oldest tunes with the same vigor that they pour into their more recent material, like the epic “Dude Incredible” that closed out the set. When one audience member asked Weston if the band ever gets tired of playing the old songs, he joked, “no, because we barely tour, so we go so long without playing them that when we tour they feel new again. If we went on six-month tours, we’d probably break up.” While their purposely sporadic touring schedule results in 11-year gaps between Milwaukee performances, it certainly keeps all nearly 30 years of Shellac’s catalog sounding as fresh and as relevant as ever, from Action to Dude. Hopefully it won’t take until 2031 for the band’s next visit, but if so, chances are they’ll still be thrilling, driving, essential, and completely hilarious.
We’d also be remiss not to talk about the touring support. Opening act Loki’s Folly is a teenage sister duo from Minneapolis that was discovered by Todd Trainer and subsequently invited on the road by Shellac. They play a shambolic, noisy brand of thundering punk that’s delivered with the confidence of musicians twice their age, but delivered by the type of kids that would write a song called “The Little Mermaid” and be sure to explain that it’s about the Hans Christian Andersen book, not the Disney movie. We’re not sure if they knew what they were getting into when they asked a Milwaukee crowd if they were ever paranoid about serial killers (as an intro into a song about being paranoid about serial killers), but they handled the barrage of responses like pros while delivering a jagged set of stripped-down, nigh-experimental riffage. A surprise cover of Bjork’s “Army of Me” provided a peek behind the curtain and connected some of the dots—these are some confidently artsy kids who are certain to grow into Minneapolis powerhouses. Here’s hoping they reign as long as (or longer than) their tourmates.