Live Review: Three Mile Pilot @ Neumos 7/20

photos and review by Brian Cullen

It’s amazing how we process and remember music based on experience. I can tell you — if you like, all about listening to Green Day’s Kerplunk! in the attic of my parents house having failed miserably in my first attempt at small town escape — or the ways in which the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” reminds me of someone special buying me McDonald’s when I was hungry and had no money. For better or for worse my heart and mind will always remember the way my guts felt as Three Mile Pilot played their set last Monday night. My life sort of stopped for a couple of hours there. As “Aquamagnetic” began to thump through the amps, well, things just came to halt. I put away my fucking phone — took a breath and just put it all aside. Goodbye.

I’m on sick leave now /

what have I become

Funny, how long I’d been looking forward to this show — like The Vaselines performances earlier this year — this one fell into the “never thought I’d ever get to see them” category that makes one’s experience all that much more memorable. Have you heard The Smiths are touring/recording again?!?*

I have to admit though, that I was a little worried. You really never know how a band that hasn’t played together for 10+ years (I guess they played again briefly in 2006 but you know, details) is going to approach the communications of their past (see VU reunion MCMXCIII). Having unofficially disbanded following their final self-titled EP in 1998 (on Gravity Records) the heart-wrenchingly beautiful band I always found hard to believe came from San Diego reformed earlier this year and is set to release an album of new material on indie stalwarts Touch and Go Records (June of 44, Blonde Redhead, Slint, The Dirty Three).

But just how sharp would Three Mile Pilot’s emotional razor be after its members spent years and years playing in other bands (Zach Smith and Tom Zinser in Pinback, Pall Jenkins in The Blackheart Procession, Mr. Tube and Ugly Cassanova)? Will it’s cuts release the same glorious sea of red?

Despite a real love for both Pinback and The Black Heart Procession especially — these bands just can’t hold a candle to the sheer force of Three Mile Pilot. These post -TMP projects seem to always be brimming with the kind of penetrating, jagged edged sentiment their earlier band let fly so freely. Indeed Smith has described both Pinback and The Black Heart Procession as offshoots of a band that was initially separated by disillusionment with major label influence (Geffen) as opposed to artisitic differences. While Jenkins ‘ and Smith’s current band’s are clearly here to stay – songs like “NonPhoto-Blue (from Pinback’s Summer in Abaddon)” and “Your Church is Red(from The Black Heart Procession’s 2)” have left me needing these two back together. Actively making music again. Jenkins and Smith (with the precise drumming of Tom Zinser) create a crowd-crushing force that sends one’s body into unconscious convulsion. As the first refrain of “Way of the Ocean” struck — note after note – in reversing waves of harmony- I began to feel a freeness wash over me. This is where I am. These waves are unstoppable. Not literally what the doctor ordered (you don’t want to know), unconscious convulsion at varying dosages was perfect prescription on this night. Despite the bodies all around me, I felt completely alone in the crowd. Was this just for me?

As it turns out Zach Smith’s piccolo bass (self-described as the band’s “sugar-coating with evil underneath) and Pall Jenkin’s fine-grit vocals are stronger together — in their broken-down, stabbing beauty than they have ever been before. Jenkins has a uniqueness of voice truly on par with the emotional brutality of Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and Steve Albini. The inflection of each delicately crafted word heats the blade until it glows. Looking back on it now, it’s clear that incisions like these could never fade into yellow-lettered karaoke:

I must be leaving on this day / on the same train that brought me here / and if I was to say / that all’s been great / well I think you’d know the truth

’cause it’s so hard to leave / as this becomes the longest day that I know/ it’s when all things must close
you gave all these things / and you made all of them vanish away

As the band moved through “What’s in The Air,” “Birdy” and finally, to the crowd’s relief “Shang vs. Hangar” and “Circumcised,” I started to realize this was going to be coming to a close soon. Fuck. What happened to that washed-over freeness? With reality suddenly looming large over the horizon Smith sat down at the keyboard and obliterated it from my mind for five more minutes with an impassioned and jaw-dropping rendition of “Year of No Light,” hitting me like a ton of black feathers I felt covered in the memories of these last months. By the final drum-beat, I’d shaken them all to the floor.

“Bolivia” was a monumental encore. Slow and brooding its piano gave comfort to my reentry. So fuck it, I’m back. Here’s to new beginnings in world where Three Mile Pilot lives again. I know there were lyrics, drums, bass and guitar but all I could hear was Smith’s piano. **

*Not really but damn, you would’ve gone to that show, right?

** Oh yeah, Rob Crowe’s (Pinback, Heavy Vegetable, Thingy) weird pseudo-performance art (is getting naked, being hairy and wearing tutu’s and what-not performance art? I don’t know, I’m reaching) side-project Optiganally Yours opened. I laughed a few times but didn’t like them much. This is the kind of crap that’s lost on me. They might’ve been good, I don’t know. I think my Pabst got dosed.

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  1. Posted July 30, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    I saw these guys on their (I think) first tour. They were really good back then. Good to hear they’ve still got it.

  2. Mallory Weiss
    Posted July 31, 2009 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if Pall still had any voice left. It starts to give much sooner now than it used to. But of course you’re right – TMP is pure undiluted magic. We saw them in January @ the Casbah and then on July 18th at Belly Up. I hope they’ll resurrect some of the never-recorded songs they played at the very end of 1998, including the one where Pall played keyboards. Those were pure gold.

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