NoMeansNo Take it to the Next Level

I feel sorry for the Canadian trio NoMeansNo. Backstage at Bottom of the Hill, which is outside where everyone was smoking, I sipped a beer and met a group of folks who are big fans of the band. They were all lamenting about the horrible technical problems NoMeansNo was having on this tour. Last night in Oakland, Bassist Rob Wright’s amp went out right at the top of the show. They took a 15 minute break to try to fix the problem. The story of drummer John Wright’s problem followed, which was a busted drum that had to be replaced for the night by an opening band’s piece. That happened in Oakland too.

I tried to encourage these big fans that maybe the show tonight in San Francisco would be perfect. No problems at all. An unease settled across several faces, and the subject changed. Before going into the opening number, Rob told the audience that “the gods are testing us!” Sure enough, his bass amp started going out at the beginning of the set. Frustration set in as they finally got the first song going on the third try. The aptly placed song was “Old,” which is what all the band’s equipment was feeling like at the current moment.

I went to see NoMeansNo with the man who shared their music with me for the first time about 10 years ago. I met all these nice folks through him; most of this crew are avid fans who mingle the band’s official message boards. I didn’t know anyone else except my friend, but made instant friends with some of the other folks:

Shared show stories with a punk DJ from Davis. He’d tell a story about a hat at a show, I’d tell a story about a hat. I’d tell a story about large numbers of women at geeky concerts, he’d tell a story about being one of the only males at a girl band show. I also met a drop dead funny woman who grew up in New Orleans. My sides started hurting at one point during one of her Southern rambles. “Never fuck with someone who lives in New Orleans,” I warned the DJ.

I met folks from Seattle, Ukiah, and even Japan. Bottom of the Hill is one of my favorite venues in SF (Great American Music Hall is another), not looking much different than when I was there about 6 years ago to see Daevid Allen’s solo show. Other than not having a pool table anymore, the bar still sported black-lit gig art with slanted windows and faux facades. The outdoor area still had the wall of posters for upcoming shows. I met the fan from Japan before going into the bar. While getting a beer I told him that he had to walk around and look at the art on the walls, which he enjoyed doing. Later during NoMeansNo’s last songs, I saw him having a great time on the edge of the mosh pit.

Speaking of mosh pit, after the show my friend an I both admitted that we had been surrounded by women in our edge-of-the-pit corner. “I didn’t realize that a beautiful woman was shoving me from behind most of the night,” I told him. “Yeah” he said, laughing. “I was the one shoving her!”

“We were in the female pocket,” he summed up.

Just before the show the woman from Ukiah looked at the DJ’s shirt and said “I’ve never seen that shirt before.” His NoMeansNo shirt had been brought up earlier, because it was a rare one that said something like “playing music through existential ontology” on the back. Ukiah didn’t know what ontology was and none of us could give a good meaning.

“Don’t you have an iPhone thingy with that Google-hicky?” I asked.

She looked at a friend and exclaimed “this is what I mean by taking us to another level!” She had a dictionary app so she tapped the word in and shared the definition. She then went on to act like she didn’t know who the band was. Always the dupe, I went along with this and tried to tell her about the group. We had yet another laugh, mostly on my account. Now my smile muscles were hurting along with my busted gut.

Later in the set, I saw the woman from Ukiah go a bit deeper on the pit’s edge. The pit was sweaty and a bit tired by then, but as things speeded up in the music, she was whisked away into the pile of flesh and fabric. Even then, Rob was still having trouble with his amp. Guitarist Tom Holliston went down the list of all the failed equipment for the audience, killing time as the amp was troubleshot. While painfully listening to the long list of problems, I could only think of my own experiences with stuff going wrong during a performance. And I felt sorry for the band.

So now Rob pulled another amp cabinet on stage and was playing through it. It belonged to one of the opening bands. “If something happens to it, and I don’t pay for it,” Rob said, “Tom will pay you.” Tom admitted that he would, saying that his uncle was an original member of the Moody Blues and that he’d “been nice to” Tom over the years.

After Rob set up the new bass amp, and got a straight glass of whiskey from the bar, the musicality shifted up a gear for the band’s last few songs. And the pit grew twice its size. I got caught up just inside the pit and had to push some huge guys back into the middle more than once. But the gorgeous woman behind me kept  pushing me, and the female pocket held firm after being pulled into the vortex. The woman in front of me kept her phone video recording going as she shoved me back and pushed people back in. I wondered what she was going to do with that “steady cam” footage, and if other people would actually sit through it and watch.

But thoughts left me as I had to focus on somatic survival amongst the crashing bodies. And the tight Bottom of the Hill crowd jumped and swayed, slammed and spun around until the last note of the encore’s second song. After that, the vacuum of the end dissipated the tense enjoyment, and like nothing before them, NoMeansNo walked away into nothing again.