As the sun sunk low on the horizon and the heat of a late-August day finally began to subside, eager fans at Neumo’s on Seattle’s Capitol Hill began to prepare themselves for an equally scorching celestial body to crash land. The evening began innocently enough, with a chilling set from the found-sound noodling of female three-piece 16 Bitch Pile-Up. The crowd waned cautious, but ultimately supportive of their avant-garde experimentation. Plus, the beer helped. Local stalwarts Kinski followed with their reliably energetic instrumental rock. At one point, a drunken fan moshed himself right out the side exit with a helping hand from the willing bouncer. Imagine his surprise at being kicked out a second time after the same bouncer caught him trying to sneak back in. Priceless.
By the time Comets On Fire entered the atmosphere, instruments and six-packs of Miller High-Life clutched dearly, the anxious crowd was thoroughly riled. Tearing into the rambunctious opener “Dogwood Rust” from latest release Avatar, the Comets wasted no time in elevating their guitar-rock mastery to deafening proportions. Frontman Ethan Miller and Ben Chasny spun out some magnificent axe-work from their well-worn guitars while the rhythm section of drummer Utrillo Kushner and bassist Ben Flashman produced the pulsing beats. Noel Harmonson stood vigilant at his towering echoplex electronics station, lifting the band back into the stratosphere with ample knob twisting and perfectly timed delays that screeched over a mystified audience.
A live Comets On Fire performance is much what you’d expect having listened to their recorded offerings, and yet, no amount of preparation could ready me for the absolute passion that was exuded within the confines of the club. Comets On Fire don’t just reproduce their material in a live setting, they burn your preconceived notion of a song and reincarnate it in a Phoenix-like blaze of over-indulgence. Seeing Miller and co. strut their stuff was more than enough to convince me they should be filling much larger venues. When Miller’s duck-taped guitar strap broke mid-song, the band kept rolling as Chasny picked up the slack and Miller opted to dance around the stage with High-Life in hand in a glorious display of alcohol drenched revelry.
With hardly a moment wasted, Kushner and Harmonson flaunted their versatility for the piano ballad “Lucifer’s Memory,” Kushner jumping behind the keyboard as Harmonson filled the vacant drum seat. Miller crooned alongside Kushner’s harmonies in an eloquent and rather rare moment of restraint, making for the most memorable rendition of the night. The keyboard driven “Pussy Foot The Duke,” a favorite from Blue Cathedral, followed immediately afterward.
As the band trotted off stage before their inevitable encore, Miller, drenched in sweat and hair dripping wildly, reassured the audience, “We’ll be back. We need a minute to catch our breath.” He wasn’t kidding. As the final song of the evening wound up to full swing, I perked my ear to the women behind me and barely caught ” it’s smoking” drift from her lips and followed her pointing finger to an amplifier stacked on stage. Although I wasn’t positive, and very well could have been swept up in the thrilling performance, I swore I saw a tiny wisp escape from the edge of the amp. But when I blinked, it was gone. Judging from the nearly legendary caliber of Comets On Fire’s live act, it’s quite possible I hallucinated the rising smoke. But as Steve Coogan, in his magnificent portrayal of Tony Wilson in 24 Hour People remarked, “when you have to choose between the legend and the truth, pick the legend.”
I sauntered back to my car as the warm summer evening cooled my sweat drenched forehead, all the while searching for shooting stars to blaze across the sky as my ears rung triumphant, knowing I’d probably never see a more spectacular cosmic display this side of the Milky Way. Or at least until the next time Comets On Fire came to town.