Davey Williams is rubbing a kitchen whisk across the strings of his black headless electric guitar as Jill Burton speaks in tongues into a microphone sandwiched in between two plastic cups. Parts of the crowd appear giddy and delighted, while others lean back in their chairs, arms crossed over their chest. I am afraid to move. This is Beautiful Shells.
We are sitting in Inkub8, located in a part of our dearest arts district still on the precipice of gentrification. Streetlights don’t work. There are no businesses open. Featureless figures push shopping carts or slowly ride bicycles down the middle of the street with no destination.
Inkub8’s gated lot is full by the time I arrive. I park my Jeep on the street, say a quick prayer, and head inside to find an intimate happening. Three rows of white plastic folding chairs make a semi-circle around two stools and one Fender amp.
We sit down in the back row as Williams and Burton begin. Williams often plays visually, drawing shapes with his fingertips on the axis points that his strings and frets combine to create. Burton’s voice darts back and forth somehow both predicting and reacting to William’s guitar. At times, her voice sounds like a gerbil stuck inside one of those high speed VHS tape rewinders they used to have at Blockbuster Video. At other times, she breaks out into a soulful bellow that fills my chest with a buzz and a yearning.
People typically go to concerts to hear songs they’ve already heard while standing next to other people who have also heard those songs. We know the tune; we know the words; maybe we sing along. The experience is communal and comforting. This is different. Here, the audience members are listening to something no one has heard, and while the experience is communal, the reactions vary. What evokes joy in one evokes sadness in another. Some applaud. Others nod in appreciation. Still others remain motionless. I look around the room in vain, trying to figure out what I should be doing.
Burton puts down her microphone and walks to the back of the room as Williams looks on, his arms crossed over his guitar, momentarily a part of the audience. Somehow, Burton’s voice fills the room more completely without a microphone. She walks behind every member of the audience as she sings, giving each of us our own sound massage. Moments later, her voice jumps to an impossibly high register and I cannot help but close my eyes and imagine the alien opera diva from the movie The Fifth Element.
After each song, there a few seconds of silence, as the audience waits for a cue that it is time to applaud. “Apparently we’ve played all our hit singles tonight,” Williams says. “And the B-sides,” Burton adds. The crowd laughs uneasily, or maybe it’s just me.
After the intermission, Williams and Burton dive back into the deep end. Williams’s guitar sounds like an electric organ and spirals downward over and over while Burton bleeps and blips like a video game screen flashing that you are out of lives.
My girlfriend whispers that this has been a Kafka-esque experience. A moment later, a cockroach scurries from the back of the room towards the performers. There is a brief pause as the crowd tries in vain to shoo the roach out of the room. Someone in the crowd yells out: “his name is Gregor!” and the audience breaks out in laughter. Few audiences would get that joke. Fewer would laugh.
Gregor loosens the crowd up. Better yet, Gregor loosens me up. I settle in and stop worrying whether my reaction is the same as the person next to me. I realize that we can share the experience of the moment without sharing the reaction to the moment. Williams and Burton have no plan; and if there is no plan, there can be no intended response. If there is no right answer, there can be no wrong answer. If you think there is something to get, you don’t get it.
Davey Williams strums a single blues chord. It is jarring to hear a familiar sound coming from his guitar. I am relieved when he turns on three electric toothbrushes and takes turns rubbing them against the strings of his guitar, like Jimmy Page with an obsessive compulsive dental disorder. Williams puts the toothbrushes on the floor and carefully places his guitar on top of the pile, giving gravity and batteries a chance to make some noise. With a smirk, he pulls out a bicycle horn and honks it at the pile of noise, and some in the crowd let out a laugh. Others sit still, listening to the sound after the noise. I applaud.
Beautiful Shells is auditory umami; a musical truffle. It’s not sweet, salty, sour, or bitter; it’s not good or bad; but you miss the taste when it is gone. At least I do. Blip. Bleep. Bloop.