At times when the world feels like absolute chaos, enjoying yourself can seem almost like an act of rebellion. There’s a certain defiance in saying “fuck you” to the current events and worries taking up space in our heads, and filling them instead with the kind of music that grabs you by the guts and makes it impossible to focus on anything else.
The Yawpers delivered exactly that kind of release at their March 11 show at Asheville, NC’s Mothlight, and their opening acts were the perfect primers. Asheville band Yeller took the stage first for a set that felt way too short for the energy they were putting out: grungy and raw, fuzzy and fierce, and the perfect antidote for the weird stew of doomsday criers and positive vibes that we’d been steeped in for days at that point. I haven’t felt such a strong pull for a thence-unknown opening band since Saul Williams opened for NIN a decade and a half ago.
Durham’s Family Vision, up next, are what it would sound like if Fecal Matter and Devo got fucked up and started a punk band — and that’s a very good thing. They moved seamlessly through the decades, incorporating the finer points of punk, new wave, grunge, and a touch of pop into a sound that deserves to be heard a whole lot more.
And then there were the Yawpers. Playing heavily from their latest album, Human Question, they tore through their set like a band on a mission to set their amps on fire. When I spoke to lead singer and songwriter Nate Cook last fall, he described writing the new album from a different perspective than many of his previous songs: Rather than “wallowing in” his pain and trauma — he was going through a divorce at the time — he decided to try and write through it, and the result is a collection of profound and clever songs that speak to a stark determination to keep going, and they translate beautifully from the record to the stage.
“Child of Mercy” is a rockabilly tune that’s high on speed, and Cook proves that his long falsetto is all his own as he howls, “Won’t you please show me something that I can believe in, something that takes it away, lying down in my broken home, like a child again.”
Cook introduced the album’s standout track, “Carry Me,” with a mix of darkly self-deprecating humor and brutal vulnerability, before asking the audience to step back and leave a space so that he could sing to the “ghost of his ex-wife.”
The story goes that Cook wrote “Carry Me” as one last song to his ex-wife, one that he sent to her one night when he was heavily intoxicated. That initiated a brief reunion while the Yawpers were on tour, where she would come to the front of the stage and Cook would sing to her. The relationship soon imploded again, and the emotion shot through “Carry Me” is unlike anything I’ve heard since Rickie Lee Jones and “Company.” A slow, gentle, gospel-tinged ballad, “Carry Me” walks the audience through the last stages of hope for a failed relationship, until the desperation erupts with startling intensity at the end. Cook channels Janis Joplin with his hoarse and gravelly plea, “Tell me you love me, in this moment,” before dropping into a near whisper to end the song. This song alone would have been worth the ticket price of the show.
It wasn’t all about the new stuff, though. The Yawpers played several old favorites, including a fan favorite, “Mon Dieu,” from their 2017 concept album, Boy in a Well. The audience seemed to know every line, and much of the show was an exuberant singalong.
With just two guitarists and a drummer, the lineup should feel sparse, but they pull it off — and that’s coming from someone who is constantly wanting the bass to be turned up. Cook, despite his claims of being a fat drug addict, is a charismatic and disarmingly charming frontman; guitarist Jesse Parmet is equally skilled at playing punkabilly style, down-tempo blues, foll-on shredding, and everything in between; and Alex Koshak hits that rare sweet spot as a drummer, holding down the low end with spot-on precision, playing exactly what each song needs, from simple shaker and snare drum beats to complex and frenzied rhythms.
The Yawpers put on a show that’s hard to let go of at the end; if it were a cassette tape, it would be the one you wore out back in the ‘80s because you couldn’t quit hitting auto reverse, all day long. And they left us with a message that we all need to hang on to right now, a new philosophy for these messed up times: “Even on these broken bones, I’ll be dancing on my knees.”
Unfortunately, the Yawpers have had to suspend the remainder of their tour due to concerns about the coronavirus. If you’re inclined to support them or any other artists affected by the current situation, please consider visiting their web sites and purchasing music or merch to help them stay afloat.
Photo by Megan Holmes