What was most interesting about Buzz Osborne's solo acoustic show at Philadelphia's Underground arts is that it was the exact opposite of what you'd expect most solo acoustic shows to be. Throughout the night, the Melvins frontman instead of whittling his songs down into sparse renditions, blew them up as big as possible on July 15, 2014, showing that acoustic doesn't necessarily mean "quiet."
From the show's onset, Osborne made his strategy clear. Opening with the Melvins' "Boris," Osborne struck hard and heavy on his acoustic. While most acoustic playing has a sort of warm, country-ish feel, Osborne's heavy striking resulted in a sinister, slithering sound. To add to the impact, because he was hitting the strings so hard, they reverberated like an electrified instrument making each note clean and powerful, unlike the muddy mess of most acoustic playing.
He began by pacing around the back of the stage like a tiger, snapping out note that were nearly as loud as an electrified band. But then, he slowly drifted down into "Boris'" quieter moments. When it seemed that perhaps the show would become the standard acoustic-guy show, Osborne crept up to the microphone quietly, paused, and then howled like a banshee. The sudden jolt from almost silence to Osborne's mammoth-wail was like a slap in the face.
The rest of the show continued this gambit. Osborne played some Melvins songs from across the band's catalogue, including a tune or two off the recently released Bulls & the bees as well as a hefty amount of songs off his new solo record. Like the studio counterparts, the live versions were fast, creepy, and thick. Near the beginning, he also slipped in a haunting rendition of the already haunting Alice Cooper classic, "Ballad of Dwight Fry." Much is spoken bout Osborne's guitar skills, but really, the cover made it clear how great of a singer he really is. "Dwight Fry" is a notoriously difficult song, with Alice Cooper, in the original version, shifting from a scared, abused individual to madman to someone filled with sorrow. It's no easy task to emote such a range of characters through voice alone, but Osborne, who is perhaps a student of blues-rock dynamics, and probably even the blues heroes, was able to shift from horror to revulsion to anger with ease- which is really, is no easy task.
This underscored where Osborne separates himself from other acoustic acts. Most acoustic shows find the artist sitting in a chair, playing a restrained performance- the idea, apparently, being that if the artist holds back, you can "really feel" the song. Osbrone as having none of that. In fact, probably because he wasn't backed by electricity, Osborne, as he stomped around the stage, doubled his emphasis. When he raised his voice into squeaky upper registers, his face contorted, his front lip hardening and eyes squinting. When he dropped in to the classic, low rumbling Melvins, he tiled his head back, widened his eyes, and seemed to be portraying the narrator of "Black Sabbath." Perhaps like other artists, whose nuance comes through in calm territory, Osborne's nuance becomes apparent at full vigor. As he snaps from ghostly wail to a whisper, every one of his slight changes- the way he holds the guitar, the way he stares at the audience, the way he tilts his head- combines to give you 100% of the artist's intensity, which really, is the point of the solo-acoustic show, really.
A few times throughout the night, Osborne stopped to tell stories. They usually seemed to center around Iggy Pop or Mike Patton, and I won't ruin the surprise, but they were hilarious. Unfortunately, as has become the rigueur-de-jour of Philadelphia, there were two drunk jackasses who yelled "play some music!" during story time. (In fact, one had a comically high pitched voice, which was probably a medical condition, so you'd think he best less brazen about yelling during shows?)
But, just as Osborne is skillfully at playing his instrument, he's just at skillful at manipulation of drunk idiots. Drunken Idiot A was shut down when Osborne directly addressed him from the stage, basically asking why he needed to draw attention to himself, which resulted in the audience pausing to observe just how fundamentally stupid Drunken Idiot A was, resulting at him being quiet.
Undeterred by his fallen comrade, and to stupid to know he's stupid, Drunken Idiot B (the one with the baby huey voice) marched to the front of the stage, apparently looking for fisticuffs). Osborne took two steps back and alternated between showing Drunken Idiot B's level of intelligence through cross-examination type questioning and letting Drunken Idiot B dig himself a grave. Really, the later strategy did most of the hard work and within moments, Drunken Idiot B realized that he had been bested, having been shown to have no real semblance of anything to say at all in front of the whole audience. Dejected, he meekly worked his way back from the front of the stage to his original spot, which really, is the greatest shame one can endure after storming the stage like a "tough guy." Osborne's new album references Woody Guthrie and is called This Machine Kills Artists, but it seems that the machine in question is equally at good at cutting down nincompoops.
The show opened with Mary Halvorson, who was a wonderful contrast to Osborne's broad, powerful striking. With just a guitar, Halvorson played a set of covers, ranging from Ornette Coleman to more obscure artists. Her performance was filled with tiny notes that ran together and washed on top of each other, in the tradition of the more experimental jazz musicians. Songs were more exploratory than they were indebted to a pop structure as she would alternatively snap out a run off off-kilter chords or let a note hang, experimenting with tension. It was a daring, unusual set that, like Osborne's own work, showed that solo-acoustic shows don't have to be "nice." There is quite a bit of danger to be found between those six nylon strings.