Graded on a Curve:
Pylon, Live

Although performance recordings have a tendency to be of primary interest to heavy-duty converts of the acts in the grooves, there are certainly exceptions, and a new edition to the list captures a December 1, 1983 show by the Athens, GA band Pylon. As the group’s highly regarded discography has yet to maximize its audience, this lengthy set representing their final gig at the Mad Hatter club serves a useful purpose, spotlighting the band in front of a sizeable and appreciative hometown crowd. Live is out on double vinyl now via Chunklet Industries.

Forming in 1978 and playing their first gig the following year, Pylon eventually received national prominence and widespread acclaim, achievements reaped through perseverance and an output of substantial quality. The band has remained relevant, with their first two albums reissued in expanded editions by DFA in the latter half of last decade; the dominant aspect of this enduring significance pegs them as one of the great regional bands of the 1980s.

Indeed, any retrospective article or review devoted to the outfit will allot space to recount their impact on the Athens, GA scene. If the B-52’s and R.E.M. are the highest profile byproducts of the locale’s surge in productivity, Pylon are arguably the epitome of what Athens represented as a distinct geographical phenomenon, and like a lot of folks coming of age as the ’80s neared its close, this writer discovered the group through the soundtrack to the documentary film Athens, GA – Inside/Out.

The song was “Stop It,” borrowed from ’80’s Gyrate, which alongside ’83’s Chomp gets roughly equal representation on Live, a totally logical maneuver given that the crowd assembled would be more familiar with the first album than its follow-up. The set kicks into high gear with Gyrate’s “Working is no Problem” into “Driving School” and then whips off two from Chomp, “No Clocks” and “Altitude.”

This turned out to be Pylon’s final show (there were sporadic reunions, however), but it wasn’t played as such, and the unfurling selections present a combo striving to satisfy a room full of eager but discriminating attendees rather than coasting on the goodwill of a premeditated goodbye. The night was taped for a failed PBS-pilot called Athens Shows, with the long shelved results providing the audio for this release.

The promo text for the record makes a big case for Pylon as an entity more concerned with the club stage than in crafting studio material, and the music here supports this without usurping the primacy of the platters that form the basis of the unit’s worth, at least for those having never caught them on tour or holding court on home turf; by now the folks whose love of Pylon stems directly from the records surely constitute the majority of their fanbase, so Live offers a valued new chapter to their historical scenario.

And those fans who rate Gyrate over Chomp might’ve preferred a set loaded with cuts from their preference, but it’s also hard to locate a lover of Pylon who doesn’t value the second album. By extension, the sharp edge and unflagging energy from this night could inspire fresh appreciation for the Chomp-derived tracks as they reinforce the group’s inclination as an arty dance act.

Today dance music is near synonymous with some aspect of electronics, but what remains refreshing in this instance is how the attempt to move bodies derives from an organic platform, something they share with the B-52’s as Pylon offer a refreshingly unorthodox example of gritty and urgent club music from the Southern portion of the United States.

Pylon consisted of the late Randall Bewley on guitar (Live’s release on July 25 paying tribute to the man on his birthday), Michael Lachowski on bass, Curtis Crowe on drums, and Vanessa Briscoe Hay on vocals. Although not music-store virtuosi, they were surely adept at wrangling the appropriate sounds from their instruments and thrived in a setting where each player was essential to the success of the whole; Live shows this to be the case right up to the end of their initial phase.

Alongside the Athens pedigree Pylon are frequently ranked as a noteworthy post-punk band, a circumstance doubly important as they are one of the few legitimate examples to have flourished on US soil. Nearer to Gang of Four and Public Image Limited than to the College Rock jangling that came to dominate the Athens scene, had Pylon’s disco-ish attributes not aligned them with DFA, both Gyrate and Chomp would’ve fit perfectly well as releases on Kill Rock Stars, the label home for reissues of Kleenex/ LiLiPUT and Essential Logic.

This connection is considerably deepened by the presence of Briscoe Hay, her throaty growl-bark in strong form throughout Live, though due to the nature of the recording she’s slightly less bold in comparison to the albums. An understandable circumstance, it does nothing to lessen this release as a superb portrait of a pioneering woman in rock, and likewise, the whole and in particular “Italian Movie Theme” underscores Bewley’s skill as a guitarist. Lachowski and Crowe dish out 70 minutes of rhythmic propulsion with nary a flub.

“Cool” from the band’s debut single makes a deserved appearance, but those pining for deep cuts are limited to “Party Zone” (from the DB Records’ comp Squares Blot Out the Sun) and a closing version of Neal Hefti’s “Batman,” and if that one seems like an oddball choice, it also serves a purpose; nothing tells the crowd the performance is officially over more effectively than covering a TV theme song.

Live albums largely swing between the polls of rescued bootlegs and highly calculated endeavors. This 2LP lands securely in between; Pylon knows what’s up, but rather than the evening getting finessed to the point of near irrelevance, the night was loose enough that they delivered a long, attractively intense set. Its release will introduce a new round of converts to a very happening band.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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