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Review: Pylon’s Final ‘Live’ Set Before Their Hiatus Was Ahead of Its Time

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: July 29, 2016
Label: Chunklet

Every scene has a spirit. In New York and Los Angeles, it’s all about competition, turf wars fought with guitar riffs and unique aesthetics, while San Francisco runs on free love and open-mindedness. In Athens, Georgia — the laid-back, Southern college town that may have midwifed alternative rock as we know it — community and respect are everything, especially in a town full of talented musicians. Nobody’s left behind, especially the underdogs — and what’s why when, in 1986, Rolling Stone declared Athens’ own R.E.M. “The Greatest Band in America,” drummer Bill Berry shrugged off the honor. The true American heroes, he insisted, were Pylon: four visual art students-cum-amateur musicians from of the University of Georgia who wrote the dance-punk handbook that would go on to be studied by everyone, including SavagesShopping!!!, and LCD Soundsystem (whose leader, James Murphy, reissued Pylon’s first two albums on his DFA label not too long ago).

While they never achieved even a crumb of the commercial success that R.E.M. or fellow Athens art-weirdos the B-52s tasted, Pylon — made up of vocalist Vanessa Briscoe-Hay, drummer Curtis Crowe, bassist Michael Lachowski, and the late guitarist Randall Bewley, whose passing in 2009 ended the band for good — snagged a deal with DB Records in nearby Atlanta, released two LPs, and were beckoned onto the road with U2. And then they hit a wall.

Exhausted, homesick, and jaded, Pylon decided it was time to call it quits, and on December 1, 1983, the group bid the world farewell down in (where else?) Athens, the same place their journey began. Rather than playing a high-profile venue such as the 40 Watt Club or the Georgia Theatre, the band chose to hold the show at the Mad Hatter, a modest neighborhood bar just a short walk from the UGA campus. Despite Pylon’s attempts to downplay the gravity of their swan song, the music world took notice: PBS assembled a crew to film the concert as the pilot for Athens Shows, a new program focusing on the city’s scene. Sadly, it never came together, leaving the audio/video reels (and Pylon’s powerful parting shots) to collect cobwebs on the shelf.

Thirty-three years later, the beloved fanzine Chunklet has uncovered the recordings, blown off the dust, and set them to wax as Live. The double LP — released partially in tribute, on what would have been Bewley’s 61st birthday — captures Pylon’s 1983 curtain call, plus two rarities: the punchy “Party Zone,” previously exclusive to a DB records compilation, and a knotty take on the ’60s Batman TV show theme with new lyrics.

Far from a run-of-the-mill concert LP, Live provides a much-needed reminder of Pylon’s understated genius — not just as a live act, but as unparalleled, influential alt-rock progenitors. It takes Briscoe-Hay & Co. just over an hour to barrel through a triumphant 20-song set list culled from the band’s two albums up to that point: 1980’s jam-heavy Gyrate and its rowdy follow-up, 1983’s Chomp, which Pylon were touring behind when they initially disbanded. (A third album, Chain, received little notice when it arrived alongside a brief reunion in 1990.)

Pylon’s catalog doesn’t show a lot of progression, but their post-punk parade is dynamically rich nonetheless — impressive, considering the outfit was so damn tired by the end of the first go-round. Laden in gravitas as Briscoe-Hay’s raw-throated yelps may be, it’s Bewley, Lachowski,and Crow who come alive onstage the most. They’re less of an instrumental unit and more of a three-man Spartan army, reinforcing their leader’s impassioned howls on staples (“Stop It,” “No Clocks”) and deep cuts (“Italian Movie Theme,” “Driving School”) alike.

Needless to say, Pylon didn’t show up at the Mad Hatter (or any other venue, for that matter) to engage in chitchat, posturing, noodling, or any other stage-play. Just take a look at the clips from the band’s first incarnation that have been uploaded to YouTube over the years: Unflinchingly focused, Briscoe-Hay remains planted in front of the mic, staring off into the distance as if she’s playing to some phantom in the back row, while her bandmates stay put and hold down the grooves. Visually, Pylon’s historic show is just another gig, but sonically and lyrically, it’s just as urgent and impactful as back when the band plugged in at their beloved hometown haunt. After all, in the three decades since Briscoe-Hay roared the chorus to Chomp’s “K” at the Mad Hatter — “Life is nothing but death and taxes / And all the trees that get the axes” — has anything really changed?