The literature on Facebook declares the night's performance by Atlanta's Quiet Hounds, Swans & Embers, to be a celebration of the spirit of the phoenix and the swan, a program in three movements with a Roaring '20s theme that commemorates the era in which one of the city's most treasured estates, Edward and Emily Inman's Shutze-designed Swan House, was completed. The accompanying imagery features a sinister black animal face beside a broken chunk of archway, both engulfed in flames.
I arrive a few minutes late, and as I pull into Atlanta History Center, windows down, I can hear the music clearly. A lone security guard stands half in the shadows at the dark entrance of the building. In the Kubrick version, Dr. Bill takes a taxi to the country mansion. I drove myself and I don't know any passwords but none are expected of me (neither is my ticket). Once parked, my only guide besides the music coming through the trees is the occasional sinister black animal mask from the invite, now in physical form, still engulfed in flames, and attached to rods mounted on hissing propane tanks. (!) A few of these demonic sign posts down a path and I arrive at the bottom lawn of the property, the band already in progress, the Swan House illuminated a hundred feet up and away. It is an awesome sight. The trees that flank the enormous tiered yard reach up to unbelievable heights. They must be among the oldest and tallest in the city.
I miss the single actor monologue welcome bit and the opening procession from outside the Swan House down each yard tier in which the band plays instruments without the aid of electricity, except for the singer's megaphone-for-microphone substitute. On the proper stage the lighting is minimal, a few colors rising up from behind with no lights pointed directly at the band. Although hosts for the evening, in this instance they play gracious guests and politely defer visual focus to the amazing architectural backdrop perched high above.
Looking around, the band appears to have a fairly solid fan base with a wide age group. There are kids, couples, blanket parties, parents, even a few grand parents, less of the precious 18-24.
The music is instantly enjoyable. There is little to no wait period. Hooks are presented, instrumental flourishes are added, others recede, more often than not the music and harmonies swell to satisfying crescendos, such as in "Calling All Gamma Rays," the finest, most graceful thing the band has ever recorded. There are detours, too. Short sections of technical expertise are sometimes lovingly shoehorned into songs, such as the near 2 min mark portion of "Too Young, Too Wise," a double speed instrumental interlude too good to leave on the cutting room floor.
Brief instrumental "1864" segues into "Beacon Sun" a song that checks Andersonville, the site of a Confederate POW camp where thousands of Union soldiers died of starvation, malnutrition and all other horrors of war. Despite the self-imposed baggage, it's a celebration, another circular chorded sing-along pub shanty. However, I'm not entirely sold when the singer wails, "We are children of the damned" from the sprawling, landscaped front lawn of an historic estate mansion in Buckhead.
I mention this only because it seems to run counter to the mature, adult way in which the band present themselves. These are craftsmen with their sleeves rolled up just so, not some anti-heroes of grunge, swimming in ratty sweaters, baggy jeans. The men of Quiet Hounds clothes fit them. They wear vests, blues, blacks, boots, like proud printer's apprentices. Their appearance, and the carefully chosen venue, has a patina. The audience is meant to see and hear them as confident every/working men (not children) representatives of a more hand made, less digital, bygone era.
Quiet Hounds have an undeniable strength as song writers. They are restless, relentless experimenters, and most of the songs refuse to settle, constantly expanding and contracting, unable to be just one thing for their short runtime. Opening phrases sound little like the end parts. I would be very interested to hear other bands covering, re-interpreting their material. That's not a put down. The songs have reverse engineer-able components that would allow for alternate structuring and interpretations.
Considering they have barely two full albums worth of released material, it might seem like Quiet Hounds are putting the cart before the horse by devoting what is essentially a one night fest unto themselves, complete with gourmet food trucks, coffee station, and the finest rental bathroom trailer available, but this is not a band of green teens figuring out the knobs on their guitars. This is a band with a focus and determinaiton that aims to end up at a different destination, whether what remains of the record industry takes notice or not. It's a welcome alternative and besides, they've done this before, and people loved it.
Though the Hounds are seasoned, with plenty of stage time logged, the between song banter consists of studied self-deprecation and aw shucks declarations on intent of purpose. "We're just trying to make art." They also appear thankful, reserved, and genuinely happy to be there. As does their audience. I won't spoil the not-so-secret identities, if you're at all familiar with the local music scene, there isn't much mystery as to who our occasionally masked entertainers for the evening are.
Side thought: If these talented musicians are so interested in producing a unique, multifaceted concert experience, maybe they should consider hiring musical actors to play their parts. They already seem to be leaning into a character-based and concept direction. This might allow for more time to focus on all the other stuff: venue, food, drink, booths, art, merch, experience, etc... Maybe write the next Tommy or The Black Parade or even Trapped in the Closet.
During the final song, before the thanks and mentions and goodnights, the familiar canis lupus stamp is projected in red light, once more for good measure, onto the slab face of Shutze's neo-classical masterpiece.
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