by Geno Thackara
Talk about strange bedfellows. Heavy power-trio rock, bizarre experimental synth-pop, tight complexity and jazzy improvisation don’t all seem like cozy mates at first glance. It would take an uncommon mind to think about combining them all too thoroughly (outside an occasional novelty mash-up or something). Fortunately for those with adventurous ears and a masochistic streak, Trans Am includes three such uncommon minds, and even more fortunately they pull it off with brilliance – zany, punishing, audaciously batshit brilliance.
Broad Street’s Boot and Saddle gave a hearty welcome on Wednesday to them and to Philadelphia quartet Spacin’, who are rooted in Hawkwind’s souped-up jam-rock tradition as much as their name suggests. Their kind of space feels like a wide open highway with nobody around for miles. These were jams rather than songs and the lyrics seemed like tossed-off lines more than verses. As you may guess from a glance at their EP Deep Thuds, the tracks are based on booming trance-like rhythms (simple enough that they only needed a two-piece drum kit), which lets the guitarists have fun with whatever tone or solo idea takes their fancy in the moment. I would have wanted them to shake things up more if it was a whole two-hour headline set, but the pieces were different enough to make up a good opening slot without getting monotonous.
Trans Am were mostly about groove too, although the kind of groove was wildly different with practically each song. They started with a simple rock-style pattern, later overlaid with old-school buzzsaw synth noise and a robot vocal straight off a Kraftwerk album (except that it was processed to the point of being incomprehensible). For other tunes the words were at least semi-recognizable, such as “I’ll Never” and the high-speed closer “Play in the Summer” which they chose on the spot after being told the venue’s curfew was four minutes away.
More than half the show had no words at all; maybe that would have just made a distraction from whatever strange noise they were wringing out of their instruments at any given moment. Another couple tunes were carried by tricky interlocked bass-drum interplay with little or no electronic effects. At least one was only a short step away from pure thrash. One was primarily an abstract drone piece that let Nathan Means use one hand to hold down a simple pattern on the keyboard while eating a cheesesteak with the other. Anything goes with these guys.
Drummer Sebastian Thomson mentioned that a few songs came from last year’s Volume X. It probably would have taken a more familiar fan to know what else was played, and the room was full of them. This audience was right with them at every step, yelling requests, recognizing and instantly cheering for at least half the songs they played, and good-naturedly exchanging bad jokes with the band to help fill a brief dead spot while they sorted out some technical snag. It was an oddly charming bonding moment, and in a way representative of the band’s musical experience itself – sincerity and absurdity enjoyed together until it’s hard to even tell the two apart. Like a dark or offbeat sense of humor, their stuff is something that’s not for everyone, but if you’ve got the right taste it can hit a sweet spot indeed.