Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the 40 Watt Club, Athens, GA, March 23, 2011. Photo by Jeff Pearson.
Originally published by Life’s Sweet Breath
“Have you ever cried from a soundcheck?” one of few fans sitting up against the 40 Watt Club says to me, as we are waiting in line and “Moya” pours out of the club each time a roadie enters or exits. We all share a laugh, quickly turn away and wipe our faces, and enjoy what is left of this spring afternoon in Athens, Georgia. As the sun begins to set over the trees shading the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house across the street, a palpable air of excitement begins to grow as the line does the same. It is arguable the humidity has something to do with it, but I’m sure it’s the Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
The eight-piece instrumental outfit out of Montreal hasn’t been in Athens since 2003, only months before going on a seven-year hiatus. Many in attendance, like me, thought they would never have the opportunity to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor live, and those who were lucky enough originally thought they never would again. The capacity crowd of around five-hundred is taking this evening very seriously, appreciative from the first effect-laden, warbled notes that opener Eric Chenaux lets fly from his hollow-body electric guitar. The Toronto-based Chenaux’s guitar playing is characterized by his jazz-influenced, no boundaries mindset, and employs a drone pedal to give a backbone to his lovely falsetto and seemingly free-form guitar work. His music has an air of chaos, while bouncing along in such a fashion that shows just how in control he is. Chenaux calmly works through a short set of his songs, including one which he tells the crowd has lyrics entirely made up of names of ales.
Even after Chenaux’s gear is cleared away, there seems to be no way a band of eight could fit on this stage, with a semi-circular wall of amplifiers, two drum sets, and multiple, massive pedal boards, each covered in guitar effects. Not much time goes by, especially relative to the six months we’ve been waiting, before the Christmas lights hanging over the floor of the 40 Watt go out, and a low-pitched drone begins to fill the room from the P.A. One by one, the band makes their way out on stage, starting with bassist Mauro Pezzente, each member adding their instrument’s voice to the “Hope Drone”. Guitarists Efrim Menuck and Mike Moya take their seats on the left side of the stage, hunch over their guitars and slide screwdrivers across the strings, turning their instruments into wailing banshees. The band fills the room with a sound so immense it feels tangible, like water filling the room. We swim around in the sound and look at each other in wonder, until it breaks away to merely the solemn, clean guitar of David Bryant. With his back to the crowd, Bryant slowly picks the main theme of “Gathering Storm”, marking the beginning of the ascent into the intensely moving piece. The song is driven along by the punishing percussion of Aidan Girt and Bruce Cawdron, and the cyclical guitar, picking up steam with each return to the top.
The band creates such rich atmospheres with each piece they perform; expertly crafting a setlist from movements of various songs in their repertoire, creating new transitions to redefine their compositions. As they transition from “Chart # 3” to the movement “World Police And Friendly Fires” from Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven’s “Static”, a video of a small fire is projected onto the screen behind them. As the song builds, the fire does the same. By the end of the movement, the 40 Watt is completely alight with the video of a now raging fire, and the band is ripping through the climax. Sophie Trudeau’s violin plays the lilted foil to the screwdriver-driven shrieks of Menuck and Moya’s guitars, as Thierry Amar helps Pezzente fill out the low end on the contrabass. The sound that pours from the stage is one that so delicately straddles the line between outright despair and ultimate hope, that, at times it’s hard to tell which I’m feeling. Thus is the power of GY!BE’s music. Without saying a word, the band is able to speak to the audience on such a basic, emotional level. The concert is a conversation between band and crowd, conveying simple, yet incredibly potent emotions to one another, creating the grounds for communication.
Actual, vocal communication amongst the crowd is virtually nonexistent. The sound of the projectors whirring in the back of the room is audible as Bryant solemnly leads the group into “Moya”, an uplifting and inspired performance that, as I survey the crowd nearest to me, is moving to the point of tears for some, pure joy for others. The tears may even be coming from a place of joy. Trudeau stomps a pedal to trigger the audio clip of Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada’s “Blaise Bailey Finnegan III”, a few members of the crowd shortly shout recognition and appreciation. It’s almost as if the crowd is torn between lavishing praise onto the band and remaining completely silent, taking in every note pouring from the stage. The band builds the sounds of “BBF3” into a sea of noise, and just as they came, leaves the stage one-by-one. Moya is the last member on stage, still delicately crafting his sound amongst a wash of droning sound, never letting the piece slip into chaos.
A roadie meanders out on stage, slowly turning down each amplifier until we’re left with only the sound of waves crashing against the sands deep inside our inner ears. None of us know whether we’ll get to experience this again, but I think we’re all okay with the fact that this might be a one-time thing. The whole evening, whether it be from the hunched-over figures on stage prodigiously playing our death march, no: life march, or the knowledge in the back of our minds that we were really saying goodbye, seemed to be a send-off. It’s hard to tell, trying to look back on the evening, who was sending whom off? And if we’re being sent off, where are we supposed to go?