An acid trip without the LSD
November 17, 2010
In the afternoon daylight on the stage at Criminal Records, a
six-piece fusion of neo-hippie folk and punk rock grit took the
stage. It was the inaugural performance of the Other Sound Festival,
an annual showcase of local bands.
Emily Kempf, a messy blonde in a monochromatic red get-up of a tank
top and high-waist shorts, stood at the forefront. Blasé yet
striking, she was clearly the band's ringleader.
But as much as Kempf's appearance was disarming, what happened in the
audience while she sang was even more captivating.
Their layered white outfits should have given some indication that
the youthful crowd members were associated. A male standing closest
to where Kempf was singing began ripping pages from a magazine he'd
been furiously flipping through seconds before, and Kempf's eyes met
his. As he crumpled one glossy sheet after another, she grinned.
That's when the rest of the members joined and soon the binding of
the magazine was discarded among the misshaped paper balls that now
littered the floor. And within minutes, the group who all appeared
to be sober, but with a glaze of excitement in their eyes discarded
their clothing, too.
A long-haired brunette stripped down to a bra and thin pants, a few
males went shirtless and the pioneering page-ripper wore only his
underwear. The brunette handed him a pair of scissors, and to her
delight, he began snipping away at her locks.
A few songs later, the group held hands and weaved slightly
bent-over, as if they were sneaking silently in and out of the
crowd of onlookers. Some people joined in; some just stared,
open-mouthed. The band continued to play.
The uninhibited crowd members conducting the antics were the Back
Pockets' theater group. The Back Pockets is a large band, and
includes Kempf, drummer Billy Mitchell, Haley Murphy (back-up
vocals), guitarist Britt Tuesink, Gage Gilmore (bassist), Lam Dang
Nguyen (fiddle player), several other rotating players and a
multitude of actors guided by Orion (Bryan Crook) and Henry
Detweiler. Altogether, around 30 people comrpise the band.
It's an overwhelming roll call, and practicing is likely just as
messy. But the Back Pockets insist on accessorizing their shows with
nontraditional, outside-the-box theatrics.
"One of my goals in the very beginning was to…create a show where
people thought they were on acid when they saw it," Kempf said of her
vision for the Back Pockets' performances.
But before the Back Pockets was a band, the medium for the same
endeavor "a big, crazy, event spectacle," Kempf called it was a play.
"There [were] all these people involved and week to week, we'd get
together and sometimes people would come in and out and we didn't
know…if everyone [would] show up," she said.
With a show booked and only a few weeks to rehearse, Kempf feared the
performance wasn't going to work.
"So we were like, 'We need a plan to pull out of our back pocket at
the last minute,'" she said.
The band was an afterthought, Kempf explained, but served as the
perfect replacement for her ill-fated directorial debut. When
practicing, Kempf "found out" she could sing, she said. The band idea stuck.
Though she can sometimes sound childlike, Kempf's voice easily
crescendos to a raw and raspy place that matches the often band's
off-kilter melodies. On "Story Song," a standout track on their
second LP, Blissters N Basements, Kempf talks her way into a scream.
She explains how at 15 years old, she followed a boyfriend to upstate
New York, took too many drugs and basically felt like she was rotting inside.
And though Kempf is clearly the outfit's experienced, steadfast
matriarch, the Back Pockets wouldn't be the shocking powerhouse that
it is without its theater group.
The theatrics are typically more absurd than what occurred at the
Criminal Records show, a performance considered off-the-wall enough
as it was. For a show at the High Museum, the band was costumed as
blend of mystical forest creatures and Victorian era elite.
The theater group wore likeminded outfits, and twirled each other
like it was a hoe-down before the mostly idle crowd. It looked like
an Of Montreal concert, only without the stiff choreographing and
rigid separation of stage and audience.
Sometimes the band members are unaware of the theater clan's
itinerary, Kempf said. The band and theater acts practice often, but
Kempf described another recent show: "They brought a giant tarp in
and unrolled it across the audience. We were looking at each other
like, what the f**k? It literally covered the entire bar."
"Everyone was on chairs holding the tarp in the air. It was this
epic…it was incredible," she said.
One connective element in the Back Pockets' shows is a direct offer
for the crowd to participate. Drum sticks are given to as many people
as possible, and everyone's encouraged to play along, whether they
beat the floor, the wall or a nearby trash bin.
Once the theatrics emerge during a show, the band as a whole seems
much like a commune of hippies, like the LSD-loving Merry Pranksters
in Tom Wolfe'sThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
"People use the word hippie a lot for us, which is okay. It doesn't
offend me," Kempf said.
But nobody appears to be on drugs during their performances the
free-spirited vibe the Back Pockets emanates feels natural.
"Natural acid from the mother," Haley Murphy, a back-up vocalist,
joked when the subject arose.
"Battery acid," drummer Billy Mitchell chimed in.
Although a cult reference did come up, considering the camaraderie
and non-creepiness of the members, Kempf's description of the band as
a generously inclusive family rings true.
"People come up and [say], 'I want to be in your band,' and I'm like,
'Okay,'" she said. "Theater is always looking for new people," Kempf said.