January 29, 2003
Arts and Entertainment
Oakland warehouse, Jan. 17
RECENTLY RE- formed metal eccentrics Old Grandad are a semimysterious band with a mixed reputation among those who heard them the first time around. Some people I know swear by them, while others have reacted to news that they're playing again with comments like, "Oh yeah, those guys. Don't bother." As I wasn't here to witness them the first time around, their "reunion" after about a three-year hiatus, at least, has given me a chance to see where their love-'em-or-hate-'em reputation comes from.
You probably had to have seen them live. Old Grandad aren't as good as Impaled, the socially regressive Oakland gore-metal sickos who headlined this show, but they're worth seeing if the words "hard rock," "metal," and/or "the '70s" don't gross you out on impact. The '70s come to mind because of the whole grimy, blues-based riff rock feel that looms over most of their songs. Black Sabbath is an obvious inspiration, but that influence isn't nearly as dominant as it is with the more strictly and mostly boring stoner rock-oriented bands going today. I could try to be cool and compare them to some semiobscure band like Budgie, but that's not really accurate. The scraggly beards make me want to reference ZZ Top, but that's not right either.
Whatever the influence is, Old Grandad know how to lay down those lumbering, shuffling riffs, well enough to elicit slow-motion headbanging from plenty of people at the show who didn't look like metalheads, as well as many who did. At the same time, the trio throw out enough curveballs throughout their set to keep you guessing and, by the time they're done, probably a little confused, too. The second song, sandwiched between two slower, sludgier tunes, was a double-time hardcore-thrash workout that showed their obvious roots in that style, and it also helped explain the mildly incongruous screaming-and-shouting vocals they used on all of their other songs. Until the last one, that is, an unexpected up-tempo rocker that was the night's only tune to feature honest-to-goodness singing, handled by former Cutthroats 9, and briefly Machine Head, drummer Will Carroll (who shares vocal duties with guitarist Erik Moggridge).
The vocals are a common gripe about this band, and while they get the job done, they're apparently not a huge priority. Not coincidentally, the set's high point was the one instrumental as with every other song, they didn't give a title. It was a basic psychedelic protometal jam, but the combination of Moggridge's thick-toned psych-guitar explorations, Carroll's active and very loud drumming, and Max Barnett's repetitive, almost dublike Sabbath-style bass line was borderline hypnotic for at least a few minutes.
Having subjected my ears to plenty of lousy hard rock jamming in my misguided younger days Humble Pie's Performance: Rockin' the Fillmore, anyone? I think I have learned to discriminate between average burnout fare and something you might actually want to listen to. Old Grandad's songwriting isn't always immediately gripping, but their instrumental interplay is certainly above and beyond that of your average loud rock power trio. I wish they'd stretch out like that more often and when they're given a chance to play for longer than 25 minutes or so, maybe they do.
Their other main strengths are, again, their unpredictability and disregard for sticking to one style, something too many current-day metal bands seem compelled to do. With a lot of artists who take on the sort of mishmash of styles, you get the sense that they're simply too lazy to figure out exactly what it is they're trying to do. Maybe that's true of Old Grandad, but just as likely, they know exactly what they're doing and don't care if it leaves people a little bit perplexed.
All three of Old Grandad's CDs are currently out of print, but they still have copies for sale of the most recent one, 1999's The Last Upper, released on the now-defunct and therefore aptly named MIA label. It's still too early to tell if their reunion will be short-lived or if they're really back together. If they are, at least they unlike Sonic Youth, Youth Brigade, or the Young Gods don't have to worry about their name working against them anytime soon. (Will York)