When Sleepytime Gorilla Museum closed its doors back in 2011, I knew it was only a matter of time before another door opened somewhere else. That door has finally opened, revealing free salamanders. Be careful when you touch them though - they breathe through their skin.
Only three people remain from the final museum line-up – Nils Frykdahl on guitar, flute, and vocals, Michael Mellender on guitar, vocals, trumpet, and various homemade contraptions, and Dan Rathbun on bass and vocals. Original Sleepytime drummer David Shamrock is behind the kit, so in reality, Free Salamander Exhibit is 4/5 Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. The other fifth is Drew Wheeler, who plays guitar and glockenspiel. Mostly guitar though.
The other two members of the final Museum line-up, Matthias Bossi and Carla Kihlstedt, are now living all the way across the country, firing off monthly missives from their Rabbit Rabbit Radio site. If you’re not a member, you should go become one. It makes the first day of each month a joy to wake up to.
The first time I saw Sleepytime Gorilla Museum,
Free Salamander Exhibit were first, to be followed byMiRthkon and Stolen Babies. I was tired, so I was glad that Free Salamander Exhibit were kicking things off. The merch table had all of the old Sleepytime and Faun Fables stuff, and also a couple of Free Salamander Exhibit shirts. Yay! Purchase! Lots of MiRthkon and Stolen Babies stuff too. I’d seen MiRthkon before, but somehow have managed to not see Stolen Babies, which probably saved me some money at the merch table because they had a lot of stuff for sale.
There were lots of familiar faces in the crowd, including my brother. It’s interesting how the crowds at different shows are so distinctive. I ranted about the crowd a bit during my review of Mayhem Fest, but at this gig, the general aspect of the crowd was completely different. Sure, like Mayhem Fest, there were lots of people with long hair, piercings, and/or tattoos, but I could envision most of the audience members holding down jobs that required a certain minimum amount of intellectual capacity, whereas I couldn’t envision most of the audience members at Mayhem Fest holding down jobs at all. In other words, smart music usually attracts smart people, and Free Salamander Exhibit and its precursors are smart. I guess that makes me smart too. What the hell was I doing at Mayhem Fest then?
Beyond the fact that whatever it was they decided to play, it would be more than worth my time, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I sure didn’t expect them to arrive on stage with baskets on their heads, but that is exactly what they did. The baskets had been modified to look like outlandish, pagan heads, and they were all different. Michael’s had one big eye in the middle (given their intelligence, it must have been the eye of wisdom), Nils’ had antlers, and Dan’s had a cute little nose. They were dressed in outfits that looked to have been made from old burlap sacks, and twiggy little wisp brooms were affixed to their arms, making it look like their hands were actually spindly brown arrays of sticks. My first thought was, it’s going to be difficult to play dressed like that. They somehow managed though, although there was the odd awkward moment, and Nils mentioned that the costumes were itchy. It was almost like watching a strange puppet show, which brought to mind Idiot Flesh more than Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. The songs were all new, and with the exception of The Gift(which had appeared in video form on their Facebook page awhile back), I hadn’t previously heard any of them. The first song was an instrumental. Whether it remains that way in the future is unknown to me. There were the usual crazy time changes and progressive art metal trickery as the band lurched about the stage like drunken pagan deities. New guy Drew Wheeler proved to be a more than competent guitarist (of course).
As the evening progressed, the masks came off, went back on, and came off again. Dan and Michael seemed to sing more than they had during the reign of the Museum, although with Carla gone, somebody had to step up, I guess. Michael had a couple of trumpets and some other odds and ends, including something that sounded to me a bit like a Theremin. Nils busted out the flute a couple of times, and Dan stuck to the bass, his homemade gadgets likely gathering dust in the Museum archive.
During Porter’s Jig, they were joined onstage by a couple of guys dressed as porters (Darling Freakhead and Jol Butler) and lugging some pretty serious looking suitcases. Almost trunks, they were. There followed a loosely syncopated dance during which the band played their approximation of a jig while the porters wheeled this way and that, miming frustration as they tried to move the heavy suitcases around, and narrowly missing getting brained by musical instruments.
The audience (myself included) treated them like headliners, moving to the spastic beats, cheering loudly, and generally having a great time. I had a smile plastered to my face for the duration.
I do confess to missing Carla’s violin, but the new songs are solid enough to get by under their own steam. The final song, Oxen Of The Sun, started out like a woozy, math rock doom metal song before twisting and turning away into parts unknown. It has the same kind of epicness as Museum songs like Baby Doctor and Sleepytime. I look forward to seeing these songs progress, as the Museum songs always did. They’re excellent as they are, of course, but these musicians never stand still. I know that wherever things go from here, they’ll be entertaining and important.