The Highlands at the Black Cat

I think I may have just stumbled upon the reason why the Highlands are one of my favorite local bands: they incorporate a zillion different styles of music (punk, jazz, folk, classical, prog, blues, electronica) with the world’s most hands-on, organic approach. It helps, too, I guess, that it took me years to discover and embrace all these styles myself, and when I first saw the Highlands, in 2006, they’d already impressively conquered the holy amalgam before they were old enough to drink.
They were so chaotic and unhinged that first night I saw them, but I knew, with all their propulsive energy and scarred beauty, that I was hooked. I’d say “hooked for life,” except I didn’t at all expect them to last as a band through the end of that year. But here it is, two years later, and the Highlands have survived. Not only that, but they’ve gotten better and more together as the years have rolled on, and though there’s certainly an argument to be made for the innocence of slop, I’ve been preferring the tighter Highlands over the wildly flailing, drumsticks-throttled-everywhere, no-one-playing-exactly-in-time, somersaults-in-the-air, Jesus-Christ-I’m-gonna-get-decapitated-if-I-don’t-get-the-hell-out-of-here Highlands of yore.
Much of the old Highlands’ insanity was catalyzed by Anthony Jiminez and Richard Laws. In fact, the first time I saw Richard, that first night of seeing the Highlands, he was upside-down on top of the crowd, mangling a melodica, and I barely recognized him from the mild, studious bassist I’d come to know through profiling Triste Sin Richard. His movements were entirely unpredictable, and his saxophone playing—reminiscent of the Contortions, or the Magic Band—seemed like an anarchic fuck you to the stringent rules of his classical upbringing. He eventually moved to Portland, formed Church, and thus, the self-fulfilling prophecy: we were sad without Richard.
So it was a shock to stroll into the Black Cat the other night, beneath the bras, and see none else but Richard Laws, setting up with the Highlands. He’s decided to just live in his van for a while and drive around—he’s got a slightly Bobby Darin-esque philosophy about it—so a one-off show with his old friends? No big deal.
As mentioned before, I’ve been pretty stoked on how tight the Highlands have been getting lately, but when I saw Richard, I thought, “Great—there goes that idea.” But you know what? It wasn’t like the old insanity-riddled shows at all. It was stronger and tougher and tighter and better than ever. It was, for a brief six- or seven-song set, a perfect demonstration of everything the Highlands do best.
Take “Gargoyles,” a song from their latest album, The Things I Tell You Will Not Be Wrong. The song itself is conventional, at least by Highlands standards, with chords that sorta make sense together in the subterranean pop idiom; but at the end of the tune, all four members broke from their metaphorical leashes and took off across the playing field. I’d say they all went in different directions, but no—it was more like a pack of excited dogs running circles around each other and generally advancing as a group to the same destination.
“An untamed sense of control”—that’s how Bob Dylan described Roscoe Holcomb and that’s how I think I’ll describe the Highlands. By the set’s closer, the incredible “Ocean of Blood,” which matches the BPMs of the human heart (no shit; on the record, it opens with a haunting, magnified recording of an actual sutured vein thrusting startlingly loud blood cells), the triumph was complete. They’d taken a baritone guitar, a cello, a saxophone and a drum set and turned it into something entirely their own. That you cannot fuck with.
To check out a bunch of other unusually good music from West Sonoma County, check out Astronomy Club Ghost Story, the label that still thinks paying for things sucks.
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