Curse of the Birthmark and Gowns: Hemlock Tavern, SF, CA, Nov. 1, 2008 By Federico

Dec 17, 2008

It was a show at Hemlock. I wasn't very familiar with any of the bands (only listened to them briefly online), but I decided to check them out. The little snippets about them (save Curse Of The Birthmark) on the Hemlock webpage ( seemed interesting to me, and I am often happy with shows I see there. I think they have lots of different kinds of music at Hemlock (at least, I feel like I've heard lots of different kinds of bands there), plenty of smaller and/or local bands, and always tons of bands I've never heard of (not that I've heard of many, but you know what I mean). Plus they have nice bartenders and a free jukebox (I think I've mentioned that before, but here's a little reminder for you. Put on some songs, for heaven's sakes!). How can you go wrong?

It wasn't very crowded, which was nice. Sometimes at Hemlock on a Saturday it's just ridiculous, but I think people were tired from the previous night (having been Halloween). Curse Of The Birthmark was up first.

Curse Of The Birthmark ( are (I suppose) located in the SF Bay area, although I later learned that the keyboardist currently resides in Pennsylvania, which I guess would explain why they don't play many shows these days, and might actually not be considered a real live band at the moment, although I certainly never would have gotten that impression by how they played or sounded. I really liked them, and was very pleasantly surprised—again it makes me have to remark how lucky I feel I've been (since living in San Francisco) to see so many really good opening bands that, prior to the show, I'd never known much (if anything) about.

They're a three-piece: drums, guitar/singer, and keyboardist. It's a little hard for me to put my finger on what they sounded like. At first I thought they sounded a little like Scratch Acid (despite the fact that I am getting sick of making Scratch Acid comparisons), only on the wrong speed and with a Casiotone (not a real Casiotone, mind you, that is my generic word for a keyboard as I know fuckall about them). This, despite the lack of a bass guitar, which is what often makes me think of Scratch Acid in the first place. So maybe it was the guitar sound or the singer's voice? Not sure. There was some David Yow weirdness, and, for a moment, I had a short litany of Davids in my head (David Yow, David Byrne), but the singer was a lot clearer, I could understand him almost perfectly: "Do you ever wonder why the wind is blowing your fucking way?!", for example.

Later, they had some great stop/start/switch-ups that reminded me of a noise version of the Minutemen, and sometimes the keyboard (which made the lack of a bass seem quite inconsequential) made me think of Big Black (and how I am sick of using that comparison as well), Fists of Love style. Not knowing at the time that they're from around these parts, I thought they had a Midwest kind of sound, full of electric tornadoes. My friend said they reminded him of Arab On Radar and I think that’s an apt comparison.

Whatever it all was, I liked them. They were tight and interesting and good. The guitar was noisy and jangly and scratchy. The drummer’s hands were a blur and I had a ridiculous nerdy moment watching and listening to him play where I was trying to decide if I like drums or guitar better. So often the drums just fucking slay me; they can be so fast and forceful and amazing or light and playful and stylish or sharp and commanding or dancey or whatever that it just kills me. But then the guitar, a good electric guitar sound is often the epitome of what I love about punk music, simple as that. So I started thinking that guitar and bass are like fall and spring. (Have I mentioned that living in San Francisco, I really miss the fall on the East coast like crazy?) Which season do I really like better? Sure, most of the time, I think it's fall, because fall can be so overwhelmingly beautiful, but when you've just been through a couple of months of crappy winter and those daffodils start coming up, and there's forsythia going crazy all over the place, and the azaleas show all their varying and vibrant colors, and the smells of all the flowers (the lilac!) are wafting through the air, you better believe that spring looks pretty good. Besides, which would be fall then, guitar or drums? And which would be spring?

You can see this question I posed to myself has not been resolved satisfactorily.

And! By no means do I want to discredit the total gamut of other musical instruments out there that totally thrill and delight me. It's just these two in particular that I happen to have a major hard-on for.


So I really liked them. You should check them out. One thing I didn't like about them is that they didn't have any merchandise, so now I have to go and hunt it all down or something. Luckily, I don't expect it will be too hard.

Oh! And at one point, a couple songs into their set, the singer said, “We've got twelve more songs left.” I thought that was pretty funny.

The Gowns ( and were up next. Another band that I really liked (and much better live than what I hear online), and quite totally different from Curse Of The Birthmark. At first, I thought they sounded like Jesus & Mary Chain, but that didn't last long (and I honestly can’t really remember why I thought that). I then found that they seemed to me much more atmospheric. They actually reminded me a little bit of Godspeed You Black Emperor.

Also a three-piece, also from California, they had a drummer, a female singer who also played guitar, and a male singer who played keyboards and violin. Am I forgetting something? Maybe. The drummer at least occasionally used mallet-style drumsticks, the kind which I would link to percussion in big orchestras, and which softened things up in a super nice way. The singing was, at times, kind of whispery. Lines such as “Don’t you know that I would never hurt you/ you are such a pretty thing to me,” floated throughout the room and made me feel all romantic inside.

At one point, another friend, who had noticed me scribbling occasionally in my little book (I learned long ago that some thoughts I have in the wee hours, after I've maybe had a few drinks—or even if I've not—may actually not be remembered the following day. Imagine!) asked me what I was writing. I told him. Later, after a particularly impressive point in Gowns' set, my friend asked me, "What are you going to write about that?!"


What can one ever say or write that doesn't fall far short of the actual feeling you get when music is really filling up your heart? The sounds that make you so totally enamored, whether they are super heavy and spastic or completely the opposite? I don't really think anything ever measures up, so, personally, I just try to do my best to give my impressions in order to share the experience. In the end, of course, I think most people would agree that it is best for everyone to listen (and see, if possible) for themselves.

But it was a really good question, I thought, because maybe there are some things that can't be properly explained (via the written word), or maybe there are some things that one shouldn’t bother trying to explain, because perhaps that somehow diminishes the experience. Can sounds be explained? Can feelings be explained? We certainly seem to try often enough, right? And there are certainly people—storytellers, maybe, or poets—who can explain in such a vastly better way than I can that it is not even worth comparing, but I guess I don't aspire to be able to convey the exact true beauty of a touching musical moment because it would be too much pressure. I would be doomed to fail, wouldn't I? I just want to go and rock out and then write a few things about it to share sometimes. So what am I going to write? I am just going to write this:

During one song in particular Gowns reached this amazingly beautiful crescendo of sound that seemed to spiral up towards the top of the club. It was the violin and guitar all coming together in this kind of pure moment—again I am thinking of seasons, and although I mentioned winter before as being "crappy,” here was actually a sound that seemed to me wintry but in a good kind of way. Clean, fresh, pale, soft, naked, radiant—like when it's nighttime and the stars and moon are out, it is very clear, and you look up and the snow is falling in big, white flakes down into your eyelashes and onto your cheeks. And this wintry sound settled down over my friend and me (and others, I would assume) in a way that reminded me just how good music makes me feel and why it is that I love it so much.