Rain leaks from the black shadows of the stormy winter sky. The clouds have been crying for two days, leaving an aftermath of puddles throughout the Detroit parking lot in Costa Mesa. Tonight, the crowd is bundled up in the corner, each individual keeping warm amidst friends and fellow musicians; waiting for Billy, waiting for Railroad. In through the threshold, a slight left towards the active stage, and a vision of Francisco the Man appears behind a soft glow of red lighting.
Three male musicians are positioned in a triangle; two guitars and vocalists in front, golden drums in the back. Around the perimeter rests an aged organ, a second drum kit, and other various instruments. The concrete dance floor slowly begins to collect inhabitants as the trio sings of broken romances and lost dreams. Just a taste, and it’s time to wander. Francisco the Man and Billy Kernkamp exchange places, and the room slowly begins to pulse with more and more life.
Kernkamp settles center stage, drums and bass player close by. Up against the stage-right wall rests an off-white organ, now occupied by its owner. After losing his normal guitar player to a broken collarbone, Kernkamp has chosen a shaggy-haired young man to act as substitute for the foursome. Tonight the charming lead is less quirky than usual, with less humorous chatter, and a more solemn look radiating from his dark eyes. The tender twang of an acoustic guitar leads the songs of heartbreak and gentle despair. Despite this, a hint of playfulness slips from Kernkamp’s lips. “Thanks to Francisco the Man, who gave me a boner this big,” he says, raising his pointed hands shoulder-width to indicate the size.
A thick fog begins to permeate from the stage and bleed through the venue, attracting prey to the dance floor. Darkness now hides the four members of Railroad to Alaska. Deep ruby light saturates the figures and every piece of equipment on stage. Then an explosion of sound and flashing colored bulbs overwhelm. In an instant, the four young men have stolen the attention of the audience with powerful orchestrations meant to melt faces and destroy eardrums. Aside the demented guitar riffs are sharp lyrics that claim, “Theeerre arrre violent sentences, I have not written, but the less I count my arrows, the moooorrre I realize, there are better ways to destroy the sun.” The crowd swims in smoke and gathers toward the spectacle, mesmerized.
A brief pause, and the shaggy-haired guitar player from Kernkamp’s set is summoned to the stage once again, and centers himself between the two lead guitars. Transition to blue lights and a down-tempo composition. An artillery of guitarists line the Detroit stage now. Each work their fingers up the neck of their own instrument, releasing a collection of haunting riffs. They feed off of each other’s twisted melodies. Stage right, the guitarist with a dark fro and electric demeanor begins soloing, shaking notes from his quick fingertips. He passes the spark to his left. The guest beside him picks up the torch and continues. Energy is not emitted from his personal movement. Instead, it is funneled into the strings from rapid fingertips, scratched into his pickup, and blasted violently from speakers. The transition continues towards the lead member of this disturbed trio of soloists. Restless eyes flair amongst the frame of thick-knotted curls of hair as the lead macerates the neck of his Gibson. He is the most vicious to his guitar, forcing contorted riffs that creep uneasy into the soul.
Turning his back to the crowd, the lead singer sets his guitar aside, then returns center stage to release the mic from it’s resting place. He invites a friend from the audience to come occupy the empty pair of bass drums located to the right of the drummer. At first, the band plays muddled, taking time to find a rhythm, then one, two, three, four… A heavy boom-boom-boom-boom builds from the back of the stage as each sound aligns, and explodes over the mass of bouncing bodies. The man with the mic inches his way to the edge of the stage, hovering over the crowd. A demented voice creeps from the speakers. A distorted face claims there are, “oth-er ways, oth-er ways, oth-er ways, other ways to live.” Lights flicker vigorously as all focus is directed to the additional drummer, soloing with forceful arms flailing in rapid succession.
Smoke settles and flashing light cease. As the dementia finally begins to wear off, the crowd slowly creeps their way back towards the smoking patio, back to the depths of the dark sky that rain brings. Misty clouds of silver are shifting, finally dissipating from over the neighborhood. And though the storm has begun to lift, the chill remains; forever to torment the dark souls surrounding Detroit tonight.