When the first thundering chords of opener Plastic Plant threaten to crumble the baroque ceiling of Manchester’s Albert Hall, the 2,000 in attendance are momentarily paralysed. Nary is a muscle moved, save a lone crowd member’s arm, an elected representative, the whole mass of humanity represented in synecdoche by this one limb. A straight skyward bolt and recoil and just like that the full cup of beer nestled in this chosen hand is launched in indiscriminate ecstasy at the stage, a starting gun to which every member of the crowd responds.
The track from Thee Oh Sees’ 2016 album A Weird Exits is typical of the 105 minute set that follows. This incarnation of John Dwyer’s Bay Area garage rock figurehead outfit is now well-established, a rare period of stability for this most shapeshifting of bands. The line-up, with the renowned dual drummers Dan Rincon and Paul Quattrone alongside bassist Tim Hellman and keyboardist Tomas Dolas, is settled and motivated to continue to push outwards at the boundaries that they have already themselves set. If guitar music has been in repose in the 2010s, then this particular brand of psych-infused garage has been the one proud survivor, its influence evident in the sweaty clubs and pubs that play host to emerging bands from either side of the Atlantic. No other band has as much to do with that as Thee Oh Sees (or Oh Sees, or OCS, or any other of the countless variations).
Dwyer is the pied piper of garage rock, and tonight his full range of playing is on display. The Static God is monstrous, its Black Country metal riffage bending bodies over in double; last year’s Sentient Oona, in contrast, is textured and tactile, a rare glimpse of sensitivity; Toe Cutter/Thumb Buster, meanwhile, is downright tuneful. The first true eruption of a hundreds-strong moshpit comes during Tidal Wave, a song that once featured during a drug sequence in Breaking Bad, no less. It really is something for a band of this intensity to be drawing such formidable crowds in 2019, with neither a hit nor a mainstream champion to their name. What they have comes from a desire to play the most pure form of their own music, twinned with an unrivalled work ethic (the band have, in one form or another, released 21 albums in 16 years).
The band’s commitment never wavers, even if the crowd do show signs of flagging at certain points during the second hour. But they can hardly be faulted, and by the time of the main-set-closing Encrypted Bounce from 2014, there is once more a foundation-testing synchronisation to the moshpit’s intensity. A three track encore frenzies the Albert Hall yet further, nearing a point of delirium.
We may not see many more bands build this level of legendary status organically, based primarily on the mastery and rejuvenation of a particular musical tradition. What Thee Oh Sees have achieved is the result of painstaking, gradual word-of-mouth growth and a commitment to a level of quality that seems contradictory to the quantity of their turnout. Good luck trying to replicate it, so let’s just celebrate it.