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Karl Returns from Algiers

The American concert-ticketing world has been a mess of rampant, predatory overcharging under the monopolistic thumb of Ticketmaster for longer than I’ve been seeing concerts – look at Pearl Jam’s doomed mid-‘90s lawsuit against them and how hard it was for the then-massive band to book a tour without using Ticketmaster-affiliated venues. But after a few years of next-level pilfering brought on by the agency’s “dynamic pricing” component, the American public has finally gotten angry about it; after all, it threatened our ability to see Taylor Swift and made us pay $500 to see the increasingly out-of-touch Bruce Springsteen, sacred American cows if the music industry has any. This is a welcome development, but I won’t believe substantive change is coming on the matter until it’s already here.

Thankfully, the winter concert season is a great time to see shows that fall outside of Ticketmaster and Live Nation’s grubby grasp, with a lot of smaller acts touring and doing small, independent club shows. Case in point, this year so far I’ve seen ludicrously long-named Philadelphia shoegaze up-and-comers They Are Gutting a Body of Water (aka TAGABOW), rising psychedelic country-jam band Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country, and hard-nosed pan-genre Atlanta band Algiers. You’ll have to do without reading about the former two, since I started writeups about both and then stalled in the middle for so long it would have felt silly to publish them, but in all three cases, the shows took place at venues I’d never been to and all cost no more than $20, with minimal to nonexistent service fees.

In the case of the most recent of the three, Algiers, they headlined a night at Philamoca, a former mausoleum showroom that’s tucked away on 12th Street a couple of blocks from the better-known Union Transfer venue. If you’ve ever been down Spring Garden Street, there’s a chance you noticed a building with a mural of Jack Nance from the movie Eraserhead when you looked North – that’s Philamoca. And folks, let me tell you – this place is tiny! Just based on my own estimates, I can’t imagine it holds more than 100 people. On the Wednesday night of the Algiers show, amenities inside were few – all three bands had a merch table, there were bottles of water that I assume were available to the audience, and that was it – no beer, no food, just a standing room floor, a stage, and two loveseats in the back (plus, thankfully, a bathroom). Attendees could bring in food or alcohol and there was unlimited reentry if you wanted to step out at any point.

All of that was cool with me, but there was one fundamental thing about the location that really stuck in my craw and hasn’t yet left: Algiers, supporting this year’s Shook, should have been playing a venue ten times this size. I say that as a Johnny-Come-Lately where they’re concerned; I knew, in my musical periphery, that a band called Algiers had existed for a few years, but I never knew anything about them or what they played. I only checked them out in the wake of Shook, having read a rave review of it and been intrigued by its guestlist with the likes of Zach De La Rocha, Big Rube, billy woods, and Backxwash. But that was all it took – I was immediately hooked because the album is killer. At its heart is one of the best-handled fusions of rock and hip-hop I’ve probably ever encountered. The guest list leans hip-hop, while the band is essentially a rock/post-punk four-piece. Tying those together is front man Franklin Fisher, who’s adept at rapping and singing, soulful when that’s called for and with a forceful punk bite when that’s the order. Oh, and he plays guitar, piano, and synths (he was in good company since, aside from drummer Matt Tong - formerly of Bloc Party!) - everyone had multi-instrumental duties). Shook delivers a hard-hitting series of socially conscious, often indignant songs, keeping its sonic stew bubbling with new ingredients across its playtime with diverse, multi-lingual features, spoken word, jazzy deviations, snarling punk, and electronic gurgles all mingling with the rap/rock core. It’s thrilling.

Well, on this particular early-April Wednesday night in Philly, that got them a crowd of fifty. It was a bullshit attendance for a band that just put out a worldbeater of an LP - I counted 30 of us toward the end of the opening set from punk three piece Shop Talk, and while the crowd unquestionably grew between then and the headlining set, it wasn’t by a whole lot. The small numbers did come in handy during Shop Talk – not because they were bad, but because they were tooth-rattlingly loud, without a ton of separation in their mix between the three instruments they were bashing away at and Jon Garcia’s vocals. That last part was probably a shame, because he sounded like he had a really solid punk rock sneer, but the low attendance at least made it easy for most of the crowd to stand what would normally be a few rows back from the stage so as not to go deaf before Algiers came out.

We kept that gap going for the start of band #2, the Sydney duo Party Dozen, only to be wisely, gently rebuked by their saxophonist Kirsty Tickle early in the set. “Can you all do one thing for me? Can everyone please take like one big step forward? We don’t all have to be best friends, but let’s get a little closer,” she encouraged, and we all did without a second thought because it hadn’t taken long for she and drummer/sound manipulator Jonathan Boulet to win us over. Once we’d followed her advice, it became that much easier to get immersed in the pair’s riotous electro-jazz noise rock. I couldn’t help but think of a band I previously wrote about here, The Comet is Coming, except Party Dozen paired down the already economical trio-format of TCiC to a kick-ass sax player and a highly talented percussionist pulling double duty by handling the gnarled guitar and synth soundscapes that accompanied most of their set. Tickle’s energy – she pogoed, stomped, and even shouted lyrics into the mouth of her instrument on a couple of songs – was infectious, and the crowd quickly got moving to the bombastic assault. My friend and I, both Party Dozen virgins, walked away with a vinyl each from them.

As for the main event, Algiers definitely delivered over their eleven or twelve-song, Shook-heavy set, covering a lot of the ground they did on the album while still making time for impactful appearances by a few earlier tracks, most notably “Walk Like a Panther” and the set-closing “Death March”, both from 2017 fan favorite The Underside of Power. They opted – rightly – to keep the feature verses from Shook in the live versions, with the respective performers represented by artfully recorded videos of them rapping their parts; I say rightly because those verses are too central to the construction and impact of the songs they go with, and nobody’s expecting Zach De La Rocha to hit the club circuit to do a few bars every night. I think with a better turnout we might have gotten a slightly longer set – there was no encore, but I know they’ve played some on this tour – but everything we did get was locked in hard.

They came out swinging with “Irreversible Damage”, the skittering gospel-rap second track on the new album and the one that features De La Rocha. They delivered with equal daftness on the punky guitar rampages of “Good Man” and the exceptional “77%” as on more subdued, sample-heavy numbers like “Cleanse Your Guilt Here”, a spooky piece that aggressively recalls the knob work of prime RZA and the sprawling, ambitious “Out of Style Tragedy”, which is built around Sun Ra samples. I can’t say I wasn’t a little disappointed that the coiled funk of Shook opener “Everybody Shatter” didn’t make an appearance, but I’m a big enough advocate of playing unique setlists nightly (which these guys seem to do) that I can only be so sour when I miss a favorite.

With its sprawling, creatively-rife community spirit and increased hip-hop presence, Shook seems like a unique record in the Algiers catalog, while still sounding like the band that made Algiers back in 2015. I hope there’s more like it and even close to that level of good ahead…and that next time they bring an album like it through Philadelphia, they’ll play it to a larger audience.

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