show review

O'Brother @ House of Blues Cleveland 7/24/2015

Dylan Sonderman
​On July 24, 2015, I had the privilege of sitting down with Johnny Dang and Michael Martens of O’Brother before their performance opening for Chevelle at Cleveland House of Blues. Sitting on a comfortable couch in the venue’s lobby, I spoke with the guitarist and drummer who along with bassist, (and Johnny’s brother) Anton, formed the original core of the band. I asked how the shows with Chevelle had went so far.
“Super chill,” said Dang. “The reception has been really good, and their fans are very open-minded about our music.”
“We’re used to being on bigger tours, with more bands,” added Martens. Since the shows with Chevelle were all a two-band bill, O’Brother has been enjoying a 40-minute set, allowing them to play more material during each show. Referencing the band’s penchant for longer songs, Martens humorously recalled a festival in the group’s early days where the band had six minutes left of their allotted time and didn’t have any songs short enough to fit within that window.
Rounded out by lead vocalist/guitarist Tanner Merritt and guitarist/backing vocalist Jordan McGhin, the self-described “Experimental/Ambient/Heavy” band has been steadily gaining fans and acclaim since forming in 2006. Hailing from Atlanta, GA, the group has released two LPs (Garden Window in 2011 and Disillusion in 2013, both on Triple Crown Records) so far and is about to put out a third. In addition to tours with Thrice, Manchester Orchestra, Circa Survive, and The Dear Hunter, the band played several shows in 2013 with Alice in Chains, after the legendary grunge band reportedly listened to and liked O’Brother’s music.
I was glad to find the guys so personable, friendly, and forthcoming when speaking with me about their experiences, history, and future. And I very much looked forward to hearing them play. Though I was a serious fan of the band before this interview, I had never been fortunate enough to experience their live show yet. But more on that later.
To me, the band’s music carries the ambience of post-rock, the foreboding and heaviness of sludge metal, and the raw emotion of post-hardcore. The sound is both mature and raw. During my conversation with the band, we delved a bit into O’Brother’s songwriting process and aesthetic. Martens named themes such as experiencing relationships with people and making sense of life as integral to the O’Brother’s lyrical vision and identity. He spoke about how the songs are intended to be relatable to different listeners on different levels, with enough ambiguity that the meaning can change for each person over time as the listener returns to the music again. Discussion and collaboration on common themes help everyone in the band contribute to the thematic direction, though Merritt ultimately pens the words to the songs.
Martens and Dang were also enthusiastic about their as-yet-untitled upcoming third album. I somehow managed to contain my own excitement enough to discuss some details about the release. They referenced shorter songs to come, with a style that is in many ways a melting pot of the sounds on Garden Window and those on Disillusion along with new elements. The band is eager to begin playing the new material live and indicated the shows with Chevelle were the first time they had debuted any of it. Dang and Martens reported the upcoming album is already recorded and that the mixing process has begun. The band aims for an early 2016 release, with February as the projected date at the time of the interview.
“It’s crazy, how time has flown,” said Martens, on the band’s fast-approaching anniversary. 2016 will mark 10 years of putting passionate work toward expression and art together. And the band has grown in their personal lives, as well. In 2015, the members of O’Brother are now all either married or engaged. In fact, Martens is engaged to Johnny and Anton’s sister. With a laugh, Johnny admitted he never would have expected that.
As the interview concluded, and the guys went to get ready for the show, I made my way to the front of the stage. My anticipation building, I watched and waited, and when O’Brother came out, let’s just say the band did NOT disappoint.
Opening with one of my favorite songs from Disillusion, “Perilous Love”, O’Brother blew the doors off the place. The stage presence was awesome; the sound super heavy, atmospheric, and commanding. The three-guitar-attack of Merritt, Dang, and McGhin leveled my senses with an aural assault of ambience and sludge. The bass and drums cut powerfully through the mix, cementing the groove into the air. Anton Dang even went Jimmy Page and used a bow on his bass during a few sections of the music songs.
And Tanner Merritt’s vocals… wow.
I thought this guy sounded good on album, but his live performance was especially incredible and inspiring, displaying a versatile range of skillful approaches, from whispers, to croons, to singing, to all-out screaming.
I was lucky enough to witness a song from the upcoming third album. The new track felt crushingly heavy and direct, with a memorable chorus still floating in my head as I write this. The outro of the song pounded out with such intensity that I literally forgot where I was and what I was doing for a second, lost in the energy of the music.
The set ended on a cathartic note, with Merritt holding out a 30-second scream over the outro of “Machines, Pt. 2” off of Garden Window. There wasn’t a weak song in the bunch, but I felt the song “Poison!” which they jammed seamlessly into the song “Lo”, and the new song were definite highlights.
The only weak point coloring my experience wasn’t the band’s fault, and that was the lackluster energy of the crowd. The House of Blues was packed, and 99% of the people might as well have been sitting on the couch at home for all of the enthusiasm they showed. I think O’Brother definitely won some new fans with their performance, but by and large the attitude of the crowd sucked. Even during the headliner Chevelle, who these people presumably had paid money to see, no one was moving, no one looked excited or happy to be there. It was actually enough to make me leave the venue well before the end of Chevelle’s set, which was also very solid, heavy, and would have otherwise been awesome to watch. Oh well.
O’Brother will be touring with Minus the Bear as support on their upcoming November tour along with Murder by Death and Aero Flynn. Check them out if you get a chance. This band is a visceral and moving piece of the musical journey and the human experience.