End of an Era: Gnarwhal’s Final Show

So, it’s been a month and I think I have sufficiently grieved over the passing of my favorite Honolulu band, Gnarwhal. As we reported last time, Erica Westly, rhythm guitarist and belting vocalist, has left the building… or island, or whatever. Their final show was at Mercury Bar on Thursday, the 24th of May, 2012. It also happened to be their best ever.

As per HEP style, we were actually late to the proceedings and missed another set by the newcomers Dead Dead Millies. I’ve heard tell their near weekly shows are paying off in stage experience. And, as every good nerd knows, experience is how you level up your sound.

Harshist was just setting up when we rolled in. I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about this new band featuring Steve Smith on drums, Travis Wiggins on guitar, Alex Nagata on bass, and Annie Hollis up front with the mic. I was quite excited for them to start as they sound checked.

Suddenly, a cacophony of noise erupted from the speakers louder than any other time I’ve ever been to Merc. Everyone in the band threw out all their instruments could muster in a screeching, ear splitting shriek, with Annie’s unfathomable screaming over the top. As the inexplicable sonic power continued past the minute mark, many of us began to wonder if this was the song or merely the most outrageous final sound check in the history of music.

And then, as quickly as it had come, the discord slid into a rhythmic headbanger. It was as if someone had turned off a spot light and we were left there, blinking the world back into focus. That world was one of 90’s inspired noise rock. From song to song, I felt so many tugs from the bygone decade that I could barely nail them down. This one would evoke Hole, that one felt very Rage Against the Machine. Even Smashing Pumpkins seemed to bleed into the rhythm-centric music. Over the top of the instrumentals, Annie Hollis’ voice lashed about like a whip. At times, she would sync up, flowing with enough rhymes and unrhymes to color the sound in a hip-hop vein. And at other times she would tear across the fabric of sound, eschewing harmony or beat to course with vocal adrenaline. These complete paradigm shifts came and went seemingly at random.

And that (aside from the banshee’s call at the beginning of the set) was my only hangup with this band: they never seemed to stay in one place long enough for me to sink in and get comfortable. Being kept on your toes can be fun and interesting, but at times I felt like those poor White House guards fighting Nightcrawler in X-2. Not to say that I didn’t enjoy Harshist, because I honestly did. They’re bringing a new, original sound to China Town and they’re talented. I’m confident that, with time, they will hook me. And, perhaps, change the scene in the process.

Up next was the band we all had been waiting for: Gnarwhal! Well, not exactly. With the addition of a bass, they had transformed into The Muskrats, a more pop-friendly band that might have been the Ed Sullivan Show version of Gnarwhal. The crowd danced swing instead of moshing and we all generally had a great time with the sticky-sweet faux-band.

But, of course, we had come to see Gnarwhal, so the bassist found his way off the stage and the main attraction kicked it into high gear with several of their Gold songs. The crowd surged and cut loose, getting rowdier with every song. During slow, deep songs, there was a ripple and twitch of growing excitement, only to explode when the music shot into the atmosphere.

They rolled into the familiar songs, the ones from Cow Belly I had fallen in love with originally. “Cadillac,” “Lies,” and “Fist for a Face” were all there. Adam even stepped out from behind the drums to exchange places with Erica for a song, though which one it was has escaped me in the world of booze and cigarette smoke.

Showing their solidarity as a band up until the end, Gnarwhal even played a brand new song in the middle of their set. I’ve never heard of a band putting out new music at their farewell show, but, then again, this was no normal band. Of course, they stumbled through it, but these candid moments only endeared them more to my heart. These were truly three people who enjoyed every second of playing together. And we enjoyed every moment with them. I will miss them more than any other band I’ve ever listened to.

They put up about ten songs, then tried to say they were done. The crowd wouldn’t have any of it, badgering them into a first, second, third encore. Still, something was missing and we all knew what it was. A call was taken up for a song, the Gnarwhal song, and the band obliged with the deal that this was their last, last, last, last song. The song to end them was the one to shake the walls with  the voices of the crowd, of the band, of the bartenders. Possibly the loudest noise I have ever heard was two hundred people screaming, “Tell me what you want to do tonight.”

Gnarwhal was a hard act to follow, but Hell Caminos managed to round out the night perfectly. The bass, drums, and guitar filled psychobilly rocked and rocked hard. So hard, in fact, that the band members crowd surfing during the set wasn’t enough. The upright bass, microphone, even the drums, all found their way off of the stage and into the crowd. If this were New Orleans, it would have been called looting, but here it was good old rock and roll.

For more photos, check out the Flickr and watch the Facebook and Twitter for updates on shows.

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