A little over two weeks ago, I bore witness to a small-scale, quasi-religious ceremony graciously hosted by some hairy fellas inside a small venue in the heart of Birmingham. The band was Wooden Shjips, and the ceremony was quite remarkable. I arrived at the venue early, especially to see the superb support act, local(ish) lads The Cult of Dom Keller. As you’d expect, their psychedelic jams went down well, especially seeing as a lot of the crowd were already beered-up (or stoned…) The Cult baptised those few onlookers with wash upon wash of hazy, kaleidoscopic feedback and drone – but a miniscule time-slot allowed them to perform at what you can only imagine was a fraction of their full power.
Wooden Shjips themselves were, by any stretch of the imagination, fantastic. They took to the stage to a controlled frenzy of applause, and reeled off a greatest hits set that one can only imagine will be fortified by each new release. If you were lucky enough to be listening to them since they first emerged (or have jumped on their wild Kesey-ian bus in the meantime), you’ll know that their particular blend of tight kraut-jamming, Detroit rawk gusto, Hawkwind-ian space ritualism and bug –eyed spaced-out desert vibes sounds magnificent in recorded form. You may have seen this cosmic waveform poetry reanimated in a live setting, and hopefully you’ll dig a little of what happened to me:
Early in their set, I think it was when they were playing ‘Motorbike’, something clicked. The incessant, metronomic shapeshifting of the globular colours flashing in front of, on top of and behind Messrs Ahsanuddin, Jermier, Johnson and Whalen seemed to conjoin almost instantaneously with the glistening, tremulous sonic miasma oozing out of the PA. It was at that moment I realised the true wonder of Wooden Shjips. Their music, unlike the majority of the recorded output of artists of all genres, is completely (deliberately) non-linear. Sonically, it may appear to be so on first listen (hell, it might appear to be so on hundredth listen), but when you’re locked in to the vibes they’re sending out to the crowd, the tantric ‘groove’ they’re conjuring seems to last both seconds and an eternity.
It’s this same ouroborotic, self-enveloping ideology that enabled their idols and forebears to create music on a cosmic level: Listen to the ever-expanding sonic palette of tracks like ‘When The Music’s Over’ or ‘Bel Air’ or ‘Hey Fredrick’ or ‘Edward, the Mad Shirt Grinder’ and how they seem to grow with each listen. Facets of the music that were unclear at first suddenly become apparent, and you wonder where your self-education and discovery of hidden meaning will end. This is what psychedelic music is designed to achieve, isn’t it?
The tunes themselves – from the roaring ‘Home’ to the soothing ‘Black Smoke Rise’ and a rapturous ‘Death’s Not Your Friend’ – were all brilliant, and by now totally ubiquitous. The setlist writes itself. The only omission from recent setlists was their fantastic cover of Snapper’s lysergic classic ‘Buddy’. Otherwise, the tracks were all necessary, and that the newer material (‘Ruins’, ‘Ghouls’) fitted seamlessly into the set should be no surprise.
If you ever get the chance to see Wooden Shjips at such an intimate venue, do it. It’s a completely immersive, exponentially bewitching experience that you simply are left bereft when they exit the stage (shout loud enough and they’ll do an encore, whatever time the curfew is supposed to be.) I was left completely baffled, and rushed home in a daze to give Vol. 2 a spin. It was simply, inexorably, totally magic.
Scribed By: Ross Horton
Photos By: Emma Sainsbury