SAN FRANCISCO — Oh Sees frontman John Dwyer was at the top of his game Wednesday night at the Great American Music Hall, turning in a blistering set and spending nearly two hours mining the band’s extensive catalog.
Dwyer, who called San Francisco home for more than decade before relocating to Los Angeles, was playing the second half of a sold out, two-night stint at the Great American. The pair of dates kicked off the North American leg of Oh Sees’ tour behind their latest album, Smote Reverser. It was also Dwyer’s 44th birthday. The iconoclastic frontman, dressed in his standard outfit of cutoffs and an old T-shirt, seemed perfectly at home, even setting up his own gear onstage before the set.
The moment the music began, Dwyer became a man possessed, lurching around the stage, striking exaggerated poses, spitting and sweating up a storm while he whipped the crowd into a frenzy. The band opened with the thundering chug of “Static God” from 2017’s Orc before reaching back to older material including songs from 2011’s Carrion Crawler, 2013’s Floating Coffin and 2016’s Live in San Francisco.
The early part of the set was classic Oh Sees: noisy, chaotic and driving—as if punk and garage rock had a baby. Dwyer occasionally put the mic in his mouth and yelped or howled in what used to be his signature move. The quintet was anchored by a pair of drummers, Paul Quattrone and Dan Rincon. Together at center stage, they seemed to form a four-armed beast that tortured two drum sets mercilessly while locked into the groove with Swiss watch precision. Every band should have two drummers, but then we’d have half as many bands.
Three songs into the set, Dwyer and company stretched out. A relentless barrage of barre chords gave way to a simmering groove fueled by the pair of drummers and bassist Tim Hellman. Dwyer and newly added keyboardist Tom Dolas created an intricate sonic tapestry with their noodling. During these spaced out jams that punctuated the set, Dwyer and the crowd maintained their intensity, even as the jams passed the 10-minute mark.
Oh Sees have evolved into incredible musicians, capable of all kinds of subtle musical interplay in everything from spacey Krautrock jams that recalled the endless Motorik grooves of Neu!, to detuned barbaric yawps and full-on noise jams.
When the band revved up the signature riffage of “I Come From the Mountain” from Floating Coffin, the largest mosh pit of the night swirled in front of the stage and several fans attempted to surf the capacity crowd.
Very little from Smote Reverser made it into the setlist but the swinging shuffle of “C” showcased Tim Hellman’s thundering bass fills.
Oh Sees’ final song seemed to recapitulate the band’s musical growth: starting with pummeling barre chords and brash punk strumming that harkened back to the band’s earliest days. But as keyboardist Tom Dolas and Dwyer stretched out, the music entered new realms. Instead of fuzzed-out major chords, Dwyer conjured juicy, syrupy guitar tones that sounded like they emerged from gear far too expensive to be left in a garage. The spacey jam lasted a dozen minutes and as it returned to its all-out assault on the audience, a number of rolls of toilet paper were launched from the balcony.
The graceful arcs of toilet paper unfurling above the crowd were lit up by the stage lights in a final scene that was strangely beautiful. A fitting end to a night that had witnessed chaos and control, transcendent beauty and sweaty bodies, all in equal measure.
The triple bill began with Oh Sees and A-Frames alum Lars Finberg delivering a set of Ramones-influenced garage-y punk songs aided by his band’s rock-solid rhythm section (clad in orange jumpsuits), as well as a second guitarist who also played saxophone. Finberg couldn’t have looked much less like a rock star in his button-down cotton shirt, but the unassuming musician allowed his guitar to do the talking as he led the band through songs from his 2017 album, Moonlight Over Bakersfield.
L.A.’s Sextile followed with a synthesizer-heavy set that seemed triangulated to fall somewhere between Depeche Mode, Clan of Xymox and Love and Rockets—right in the middle of the 1980s. Singer Brady Keehn, looking vaguely like Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore in jeans, a tank top, and a leather jacket, danced around the stage while the crowd swayed to songs from the band’s latest album, Current Affair. All that was missing was the cloying cloud of Aqua-net.