I knew what I was getting myself into. I made the appropriate mental adjustments to enjoy a show with a crowd I readily don’t frolic with, partly by chance, partly by destiny, and wholly by confusion. Still, I made the trek to “cosmopolitan” mecca Echo Park, California. I was there to enjoy the up and coming talent and doo-wop drone sounds of Dirty Beaches. Amongst the painfully nonchalant frequents of the now reputable The Echo, Dirty Beaches did work and interpolated some furious toe-tapping, of which I was no doubt a part of. Out the window went any concerns or reservation I had about thoroughly enjoying myself in an alien environment. Good tunes have a good habit of doing that.
Alex Zhang Huntai, the man behind Dirty Beaches, uniformed in a pair of jeans, a white under shirt, a bad-ass leather jacket and a slick pomp(adour), began the short set with formidable track “Speedway King.” Basically, Alex crooning the words “Speedway, king. King” over a looped, distorted riff. Some might call it monotone and repetitive, I’ll call it hypnotizing, captivating. If you can dig this cut, you can dig the rest of the sonic, yet no less, visual experience. Visual not merely by the backdrop vintage photographs of greasers in aviator glasses and women in baby doll shoes, but more importantly by the undeniable sound of a man doing 80mph on the freeway, chasing faith, home, anything concrete really. This man is a filmmaker making music. If you’re not into the show by this point, you might not ever be. The next track was “Sweet 17,” a song in the same vein as the previous, but this time it’s at 100mph, frantic. One could feel the audience either troubled, staring at an abstract painting or completely engulfed. Repetition works marvels with me, I was into it.
If you opted to flee for the smoker’s lounge and missed the rest of the set (really only a handful of songs) you missed the best part. Dirty Beaches seemed to end with the crowd favorite ballad, “The Lord Knows Best,” only to encounter a couple hollers and requests. He declared that it was only his second time doing an encore and didn’t really know what to do. Alex, if you’re reading this, you handled it quite a’ight. The crowd was treated with a brand new song, “Black Silk Stockings,” a testament, possibly, to the sound Dirty Beaches is leaning towards; a more palatable, pop groove, but without any sacrifices to the grittiness that makes the music it’s own. The last track was my personal favorite, “True Blue,” another smooth bleeding heart ballad of a man crying along the lines of, “and doll if you haven’t called back. I’m begging you, please.” What started off with faces of “what-the” ended with lovers slow dancing, a scene straight out of a 50’s themed high school film.
Some of the sounds of the night might have put you off and you might feel lost. That’s OK, I’d say that’s part of the experience. Alex, after all, is a man whose who’s constantly traveled, being born in Taiwan, raised in Hawaii, lived in San Francisco, Vancouver and who knows where else. In a short e-mail exchange I had with Alex, he explains how being a permanent immigrant influences his work, “My sense of reality has been shattered a few times (encountering racism for the first time, moving into a shitty neighborhood, etc) those experiences shape and define you as a person…” I’d say if Dirty Beaches is able to shatter your reality and also provide comfort in a liminal space, locked in the arms of a stranger to even stranger music, or simply enjoying yourself amongst an odd crowd, then I’d say he’s done a fine job as an artist. I’m seeing him next time he’s in town.
In the meantime, pick up his debut record Badlands, in stores now.
Guest Contributor: Luis Moreno