“Chris de Burgh? Albini’s impression of Timo? You had to be there” – MacDara Conroy reports from Shellac‘s gig at Whelan’s on 20th November The main floor at Whelan’s is pretty sparse when Helen Money takes the stage – Kim Gordon hair, sparkly miniskirt, floor-crushing boots, cello in hand. It’s the curse of the opening act to play to an empty house, and I’m sure Ms Money (the nom de guerre of Alison Chesley) is inured to it by now. Matter of fact it’s probably digging at me far more than it ever does her, as she plugs into a vast array of effects pedals and gets right into scraping at her cello’s strings with a thumb pick, arresting the few who are gathered in a crescent on the floor with her amplified drones, looped and treated via the pedal set-up that’s simply another instrument.
Little trace here of the sounds she made in the nineties with Bob Mould or Poi Dog Pondering or Verbow – think rather her later collaborations with much heavier groups like Mono and Yakuza. And they’ve clearly rubbed off on her; this stuff is decidedly intense (‘aggressive’ doesn’t quite do it) and personal, one woman conjuring a band’s worth of massive sound – ambient drone waves one moment, punishing low-end grinds the next – with a few choice pedal pushes and intimate control of her instrument.
The only downside concerns the sampled metal drums she employs on a couple of songs, which don’t work as well as they do on her latest album Arriving Angels, and in any case are an unnecessary muscular affect, when her voluminous cello is commanding enough – even when she opts to start one song unplugged. By the end of Helen Money’s 40-minute set her bow’s been through the wars, and there’s a much bigger crowd on the floor, moving closer to the din. I wouldn’t be surprised if that always happens.
Soon it’s time for the main attraction. Those unassuming Shellac lads come out from the wings sans fanfare, setting up their own gear in proper DIY fashion, drums front and centre on the stage so the trio can play in physical unison. And they’re quick about it, too; a well-oiled machine in that regard. Almost literally, going by the grease-monkey overalls Steve Albini’s wearing. Or is it a flight suit? That might make more sense, as once the band take off – with a stomping rendition of ‘Canada’ – they rarely come down for the remainder of their 90-minute set.
They fit pretty much anything you could want to hear from their 20-year catalogue into that time frame, too, and crowd-pleasers the lot (seems we’ll just have to wait for the new album Dude, Incredible). That’s not to mention some choreographed hijinks, and a break in the middle for Q&A. (Chris de Burgh? Albini’s impression of Timo? You had to be there.) Plus a minor lecture from Bob Weston about some annoying git’s persistent filming of the show. It makes him self-conscious and throws him off his playing, he says, though I didn’t notice him blowing any clams. Dude can stand on one leg with his arms splayed out and his aluminium bass still dangling off on the strap – that’s impressive.
Dublin’s the first night of Shellac’s short European tour (coinciding with ATP’s last stand at Camber Sands) so maybe we’re getting the best of the trio tonight, not ragged from the road. Or it could be the intimacy of Whelan’s as a venue, as band and audience alike feel charged with more energy than their previous visit to the Button Factory. It’s stuff like that that makes or breaks gigs for me, more so than a weird sound mix that buries Albini’s guitar under Weston’s grinding bass and Todd Trainer’s clattering drums. Doesn’t matter; I listen to Shellac for the rhythm section anyway.