Let’s just say St. James Infirmary smelled ripe. There were bodies wall to wall, some packed in to get a closer whiff of the bands, others sitting on top of booths, all there to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Reno hardcore punk band Elephant Rifle.
Skew Ring started the show. Their lead singer pounded his head with the mic as the five-piece spilled off the tiny stage and into the audience.
The event wasn’t only a birthday; it also celebrated the return of Handsome Vultures, a Reno death folk band. They haven’t played in seven years, and have since become a Reno supergroup.
I watched a woman flip-off Ricketts to the beat of the song for, no joke, three entire songs. At first I thought it was an inside joke, punks being punks.
“We’ve toyed with the idea of trying to do a reunion show several times in recent years,” Handsome Vultures drummer Jeff Knight said. “It wasn’t until Brad Bynum approached us with the idea of hopping on the anniversary show that it felt like the timing was right.”
The members of the six-piece group have their hands in a majority of dope Reno projects – Silver, Six Mile Station, The Deadly Gallows, People With Bodies, Buster Blue, Xenophobes, Last To Leave, Earthscraper and Van Sounds.
Last time they played it was in the same room with the same headliner. Though Handsome Vultures and Elephant Rifle differ in genre, they are united by the thrill and dire need to be shirtless. Give any of these fellas half a song and the buttons start popping. Most don’t even pretend anymore and start the show by disrobing.
Handsome Vulture bassist Christopher Stehman immediately took off shirt, then started unbuttoning frontman/accordion player Jason Ricketts.
I’ve been photographing shows for more than a decade, but there are still surprises and new awkward things to witness. I watched a woman flip-off Ricketts to the beat of the song for, no joke, three entire songs. At first I thought it was an inside joke, punks being punks. After Ricketts’ first, second and third attempt at politely stopping it, the crowd knew it wasn’t a joke.
Who buys a ticket to a show to flip someone off? She started kicking at Stehman’s bass, a fleet of people boxed her out from the front of the stage, and that was the end of that.
Most of Handsome Vultures are multi-instrumentalists. John Underwood is usually a certified octopus on stage, cycling through whatever instrument he chooses. He whipped out a polite mini-trumpet (from perhaps his pocket) for no more than 10 tiny notes.
Bassist Stehman was full of tricks too. He’d mount his upright bass mid-riff or venture with it into the middle of the crowd.
Ricketts growled through originals and The Mountain Goats and Tom Waits covers. He finished by climbing on the bar and almost knocking down a PA, a theme that’d continue for the rest of the evening.
“Elephant Rifle is a quintessential Reno band,” Knight said. “Each member of every incarnation of the band is musically talented, performance oriented, and community minded.”
As Elephant Rifle set up, front man Brad Bynum slowly made his way to the stage. He greeted his friends and fans as his stank introduced itself to the room, an under-poncho pièce de résistance to an already stank-ass room.
Just like the bassist from Handsome Vultures, Bynum ventures into crowd while playing and has the compelling urge to be shirtless… eventually.
Someone poured a full beer on Bynum’s head, he continued singing as makeup ran down his face.
“A band’s ability to stay together for over a decade is a testament to their ability,” Knight said. “To communicate with each other, set reasonable expectations, and be patient with the process.”
The four-piece sounded awesome. They played an impressive metal waltz in 3/4. The guitar tone was piercing, the bass was loud and driving, and drummer Michael Young always puts on a masterclass.
“When I see Elephant Rifle perform it makes me proud to be from Reno,” Knight said. “When audiences outside of Reno see them perform, it makes them curious to see just what the fuck is going on here.”