Mike Damron’s got one of his molars for sale at the merch table- he’s asking thirty bucks and it’s at least two-thirds whole. The other third, he laments, broke off and got swallowed in a burger or something on the way to Sacramento two days earlier, causing emergency oral surgery after that night’s gig. “Buddy” he wheezes to me, just before he goes on, tapping his hyoid with his finger, “I swear the shards of that mother fucker sliced my shit up on the way down! Feels like I got fuckin’ razor blades in my esophagus.” This, of course, mixed with the usual gastric acid surging upward (apparently exacerbated tonight by some “fucking enchee-ladas”) has him understandably worried about whether he can sing.
Turns out, it don’t matter- Damron’s signature howl-growl is on point as usual (to me it evokes a young Tom Waits doing Dukes-era Steve Earle, although Mike will describe it halfway through the set as “Neil Young fucking Prince”) and he launches into the set with a stomp of his foot and a sling of his head, smashing away with his characteristic punk-blues hamfist on a new blonde Epiphone Sheridan (a totally unsubtle, totally enviable nod to Ben Nichols.) If anything, his continual reminders to the crowd between songs that some lyringeal Chernobyl is imminent add even more gravity to what is already some seriously heavy shit- each strangling line tremoloed by the blood-glutted irrigation ditches we imagine plowed into his tonsil tissue, every note sent warbling like schlieren waves from jet engine lungs.
Damron’s new band, the Do Betters, are a refreshingly sparse 3-piece, featuring Allen Hunter on bass and James Pearson behind the drums. James looks pretty familiar when he first walks in, and it takes a few minutes for me to realize that he used to have a lot less hair when he was the drummer in Truckstop Darlin’, one of my favorite Northwest bands. It sucks that they broke up so soon after the release of “Southern Ghosts” but it’s good to see him here as he holds the beat on a stripped-down kit with a zen-like aplomb, occasionally taking a small sip of water, wearing white crew socks with no shoes.
Hunter keeps switching between a couple different bass guitars, one of which looks like it was a shitty Japanese Tele in a former life. His tone is fantastic; augmented by a pretty badass selection of pedals, he slams back and forth between traditional anchoring rhythms and frenetic lead sections (15th fret mandolin-esque trem-strum into an Earthquaker Devices “HOOF” fuzzbox pushing an EHX Holy Grail is instantaneously boner inducing, by the way… you’ve been warned.) About 15 years ago I was in a band with a bass player who had the same proclivity for soloing. We were attempting to make a record and the studio engineer, who was a friend of mine, tried to be helpful by explaining that lead bass sounded weird, that it was throwing the audience off, that leads were meant for Les Pauls. Now, watching Allen fly through a comfortingly blue-collar pentatonic run at a perfectly head-bobbing tempo, it suddenly occurs to me that my buddy can take his advice and shove it up Slash’s ass.
Hunter also plays the role of tuner, apparently. “Your E string is flat” he yells as the band launches into “If I Had a Gun,” a forked-tongue-in-cheek song they co-wrote about killing the entire world. “Naw man” counters Mike as the beat shatters. “Yeah” answers Allen. This goes on for a bit until Mike uses his tuner (!) to check and whaddya know, the bass player was right. “Fuck you, Motherfucker,” Mike says, meaning, I guess, “thanks” and the song starts up again, with James sunk deep in the pocket, Allen careening around Novoselically and Damron lost in his own cyanide universe, his uncommonly clear eyes like glass beads behind the veil of flung hair, neck arched up toward the rafters, body straining down toward the concrete, the Sheridan a scimitar arc between them, whistling and sharp, cutting body heat, beating back the darkness on the edge of stage.
It occurs to me that I’ve never seen Mike play on any day besides Sunday, for some reason, and as a consequence I’ve always equated his shows with a kind of worship, though not always with rest. Whether he plays solo, with ICLASOBITH, or with the Do Betters, watching him perform is a lot like what I imagine it was like to witness the crucifixion; the whole thing is a brutally honest hanging out-to-dry, an almost ritualistic self-flagellation, taking on (not only in the tradition of Christ but also of Leadbelly and Cash and Jennings) the sins and sorrows of a million men like himself, and yet not like himself, because Damron (as self-depreciating and death-obsessed as he comes across) is a hopeful man too. He might be nailed to a bloody, shitsoaked tree that he wishes for all the kingdoms of the world he could come down from, but in the end there’s only one way out, and that’s to open up the eyes and the mouth and just fucking sing until you die, man. Now, some of this is showmanship (and so was Golgotha, if we’re being honest) but a hell of a lot of it isn’t, and it’s worth remembering that there is an authenticity to Mike’s songs that you just don’t get hardly anywhere else; when he says “row little boy” you best row until you drop because when he tells you the darkness is coming, it’s coming. Indeed, it’s already here: the sky goes black and it’s just Mike in the middle and James and Allen like bandits on his flanks, unapologetically slinging the truth of what it means to be human and we’re all here on a Sunday evening and we have chills running down our spines because Mike is waking our ghosts and asking us to say hello.
Nobody throws dice at the feet of Mike D when he’s on stage though- that’s a good way to get your teeth kicked in… although if that does happen, the man will be happy to sell you two-thirds of a replacement.