You hear a lot of pretentious B.S. about bands trying to “break down boundaries” or undermine the “performer/audience relationship” or some such thing. But I have only seen one band actually achieve these things, and they didn’t do it by handing out xeroxed manifestos or putting on an “in your face” performance art piece. They could do this because they live and breathe music. It’s in their flesh and bones and blood, not in an art-school thesis paper. This is a review of possibly the best show I’ve ever seen.
I was invited to come play this show a few years back at the apartment of one of the Organ Donors, actually in the basement of a rowhouse-style rental. It’s a typical house show with a reasonably enthusiastic audience. Until it’s time for the Organ Donors to play. The Organ Donors started out, I guess, as a recording project, doing movie soundtrack type music. Then they booked a live show and decided that they would write all new material that would be exciting to play live and that formed the core of their live set from that point forward. The line-up, as I usually saw it during this incarnation, had one organ/keyboard, 1 drum kit, and 2 vocalists, although I’ve also seen them with 2 drum kits and on this night they had a very confused looking guitarist who I think got drafted into the band just that day.
The band playing before the Organ Donors had finished and people in the basement started asking, “Where are the Organ Donors?” “I think they’re upstairs.” I head upstairs to find that they are gathered around the piano with a small group of people, pounding out songs with everyone clapping and singing along. “It’s time for you to play,” several people are telling them so down the stairs they march, still singing and clapping, with the audience in tow. They don’t stop playing as they set up and they never really start, they just plug things in and it suddenly gets louder.
The Organ Donors’ 2 vocalists have a certain approach. They don’t stay on the stage. They don’t care much if the microphones stay plugged in. In fact, at one show I saw them toss the microphones away on the very first note. Organ Donors songs have very simple, catchy sing-alongs, made of “WHOOO”s or simple chants. The vocalists are really just cheerleaders, and as soon as things get plugged in this night they charge into the crowd singing these parts, microphone-less, from the back of the room, or curled up in fetal position in the corner, or just amidst the audience. Since they’re not on the stage and don’t have microphones, they are in no special position, and since everyone can figure out the “words” immediately, everyone there can just as easily be the singer. Tonight this really comes true. Everyone sings. There is just the band and one big chorus of people dancing and singing.
One song overlaps another. Usually the audience-chorus won’t let a song end and the instrument players have to start the next song over the top of them. Then the organist, Ari, takes off into the dancing crowd. Abe, one of the vocalists, leans over the organ and plays his parts. Then he’s gone and someone I’ve never seen is playing. The guitarist, who as I said probably got drafted into the band that day, is replaced by someone else. People have discovered that they can drum along on the pipes and ducts in addition to clapping. Very shortly I can’t follow where the band members have gone, but somehow, miraculously, whoever touches an instrument seems to know how to play these songs. The stage area has dissolved. The band has dissolved.
Eventually, someone comes rushing down the stairs into the fray shouting that everyone has to stop playing. The neighbor is out on the lawn, saying something like she’ll call the police and we’re waking up her baby. The show hasn’t stopped though, people are still clapping and singing. In the midst of this some band members are shouting “unplug everything” but the actual instruments have become unimportant anyway. The walls and pipes and floor have become the drums and everyone knows the songs at this point. Some people are singing the organ parts, and other people the vocal parts. The singing and drumming and dancing goes on for another 20 minutes or more before gradually settling down into a happy chatting and hugging afterglow. There is no more band to clap for so everyone just claps for themselves. No one says “We have CDs for sale” or “We were the Organ Donors.” We ALL were the Organ Donors.
Update: The Organ Donors have since reincarnated themselves as a group which plays live songs in a manner closer to their original intentions. Soundtrack-like, story-telling songs which are generally tense and subtle and maybe fall somewhere between Ennio Morricone and Bob Dylan.