While the debut album released last year by instrumental rock trio The Messthetics was an enjoyable listen, I was not prepared for the awesome experience of seeing them perform live. The band from Washington, D.C. quite frankly blew the roof off of The Hope and Ruin on a bitter January night.
Most in attendance were there due to the fact that The Messthetics feature Fugazi rhythm section Joe Lally and Brendan Canty playing together for the first time since that legendary post-hardcore group’s final shows in 2002. Fugazi took the energy and passion of hardcore punk music into more experimental terrain and were widely admired for their independent spirit. However, while bassist Lally and powerhouse drummer Canty laid down a solid foundation tonight with their supple playing it was the virtuosic jazz guitarist Anthony Pirog who stole the show. Despite being a relative unknown, his formidable playing rivals any of the great lead guitarists I’ve had the pleasure of seeing over the years – John Frusciante, Tom Morello, J. Mascis, to name a few. I saw those players in large festival fields or big clubs whereas unbelievably in this case it was a small room above a pub. The musicians were close enough for the audience to be able to see the beads of sweat dropping off of their faces!
The Messthetics stretch out their songs live with improvisation. Anthony Pirog and Joe Lally remained deep in concentration throughout but Brendan Canty was visibly overjoyed at points by Pirog’s playing. Pirog summoned sounds from his instrument that I had never heard from an electric guitar before, which is not something that happens very often in an increasingly jaded and nostalgic rock music scene. A clue to his influences arrived in the form of a cover of ‘Once Upon A Time’ by free jazz guitar player Sonny Sharrock, the would-be saxophonist prevented from taking up that instrument by his asthma. It is their own composition ‘The Inner Ocean’ though which was the highlight of the night for me. During this song I closed my eyes and experienced the phenomenon known as frisson, chills moving across the body in waves. ‘Serpent Tongue’, one of their rockier numbers, was another standout with a killer main riff.
In Lally and Canty’s 15 years’ experience together with Fugazi they achieved an almost telepathic connection. Fugazi were known for not even requiring planned setlists. This rapport is captured on their seminal documentary Instrument, which is artfully shot and includes some remarkable concert footage. Canty’s iconic bell, an unusual addition to the drum kit, which I recall from that film, made an appearance tonight. I had previously seen Joe Lally perform on a solo tour but it was a thrill to finally see him and Canty playing together.
The Messthetics are a very different beast to Fugazi. Where Fugazi broke down the lead/rhythm guitar distinction with two guitarists playing interlocking parts, The Messthetics feature much ‘flashier’ guitar playing from one guitarist. This brings to mind archetypal power trios like The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The common thread between Fugazi and The Messthetics is both bands’ willingness to take influence from genres other than punk rock, namely funk and reggae in the former and jazz in the latter.
Fugazi were renowned for their artistic integrity so it is no surprise that The Messthetics’ music is genuinely surprising rather than a stale retread of paths previously taken. This is music played with passion and with no concern for commercial expectations. Seeing this gig for just over a tenner was remarkable. One of the many ways that Fugazi bucked the trend was in not overcharging fans and this stance continues with The Messthetics. Tonight was a testament to the power of live music to emotionally connect with and inspire the listener.