Having appeared under multiple lineup and variations on the name (The Ohsees, The Oh Sees, Thee Oh Sees to name a few), John Dwyer’s prolific psycho-garage-art-punk project, now appearing under the truncated nom de guerre “Osees,” took to an expanse of concrete in the middle of the high desert to fire through 15 spasmotic blasts of energy. Many of these were live debuts, at an intensity both suggestive of and inspiring the eradication of torpor. Like many bands, live dates in the US have been cancelled or postponed. The frustration is real, and this performance felt like a hail mary to exorcise it out.
The current concert experience, as has been commented on in recent mxdwn reviews, has seen some variations in practice. Live music is suffering a hard blow in every facet, hitting musicians, venues, promoters, fans and all the manifold cottage industries in the interstices, be it unofficial merch or ubiquitous devil dog mongers servicing starving fans as they spill out onto the street in need of salt, fat, spice and sweaty recap conversations that often sound like some post-coital play-by-play.
Streaming concerts live in this strange territory where the visual documentation is a crucial visual component that, in a truly live setting, is left up to the fans, and depends on seating and relative ticket prices, or timing of arrival in GA situations, allowing attendees to decide whether the front row is all it’s cracked up to be (it’s not). So if the camera angles are claustrophobic, it can project a stadium sound onto what looks like a deafening basement practice space filmed by friends who valiantly shake the camera to capture the moment, but in effect fail to provide an objective view. The Levitation Sessions series offers a more stylized approach that often harkens back to realtime proto-video effects, transitions and wipes of the sort that used to be seen on weird public access gems and psychedelic pre-MTV music videos, later pastiched in the turn of the century retro wave led by the likes of the Strokes and the White Stripes. The bands that have taken the Levitation stage often play in dreamy modes and textural assaults that complement the visuals, and vice versa. Ringo Deathstarr, Holy Wave and Death Valley Girls are just a few bands that have taken this stage.
Osees took on a more raw production, befitting their jagged garage sound. Two handheld cameras kept a close eye on all the spasmodic action of Dwyer and company. High contrast blasted out the hotspots hit by the desert sun, and as the performance edged into twilight, beaming white floods threw the shadows into deep relief. Over 20 years of playing under variations of the OCS moniker has created a complicated lineage of lineup variations that usually mark the name changes. The new 2020 Osees, which has brought one new full length, Protean Threat, and two more to come, continues the two drummer lineup, with bass, keys and of course Dwyer yelping and whooping on vocals while viciously attacking his high slung guitar.
Starting with a block of three shrill psychobilly scorchers from the past nine years, guitar and vocals swimming in the echoplex as driving bass and drums created a wall of compass-spinning madness, the combination of the mix and tone coming from the dense collection of effects and instruments did a fair job of replicating the vibe that would be felt in a small club. Even though the band played on a concrete pad against the desert horizon, one could feel the regretful anticipation of having to brave a dank bathroom with no doors on the stalls and 30 years of stickers and urine solidified into a crystallized amber muck on the wood paneled walls. (It’s hard not to get sentimental thinking about it.) Playing his falsetto upon the echoes at the ends of lines on “Carrion Crawler” and “I Come from the Mountain”—quickly replaced by frantic searches spanning his fretboard on the upper strings, counter balanced by thudding kicks and meaty bass—the full spectrum of audible frequencies made a brothy stew studded with chunks of percussive blasts and fibrous grooves.
The energy of the 15-song set rarely waned. Over time the monolithic sound yielded its many nuances. The keys, buried in those first three songs, became more prominent as Dwyer cycled through his pedalboard and the synths buzzed, squelched or hammered organistic triads. Sometimes the guitar whispered, in turn highlighting the rhythmic elements. Other times, like in the “Static God,” it sounded like a polyvocal synthesizer. On “Night Crawler,” it took on the sound of a dual lead from a harmonizing effect. The set list spanned several albums released since 2009, and many songs, marked in the set list below, have never been played live. Of their new release Protean Threat, released just a month ago, surprisingly only two songs appeared: the radio-friendly ba-ba-bubblegum “Terminal Jape,” and the monomaniacal “Dreary Nonsense,” which saw each member mirroring the same rhythmic motif for the duration of the song.
Although Osees flirts with chaos, it is a targeted, directed chaos that requires some degree of precision. No one seeing a guy with such a short-strapped guitar would expect otherwise. But improvisation was still welcome. Closing the set with increasingly sparse “Block of Ice,” the band found room for exploration, cooling the hot sand and washing the way the grit as the ice melted in the dry desert air. A few claps could be heard as they closed. Whoever they were, it’s hard not to be jealous.
Photo Credit: Raymond Flotat