I’ve never seen the same band two nights in a row. Never needed to. What would be the point? But the plan always was to go to both nights of The Shanks’ farewell stand at O’Leaver’s last weekend for the same reason people tune into the “farewell episode” of their favorite TV show: Just to see what happens.
And what happened is exactly what I expected.
I must be true in my reportage by saying that O’Leaver’s was less than packed both nights, despite the urine-drinking, blood-soaked punk-rock exploits cited in last week’s issue of The Reader. Perhaps the less-than-overwhelming turnout was the truest testament on why it’s time for the band to hang it up; but, no. What actually happened is the true testament.
Friday night’s openers, The F**king Party and Mosquito Bandito, set the mood — heavy, sloppy, straight-out-of-the-garage guitars drenched in feedback, augmented with plenty of waling into over-amped microphones. It was noise as art as release. Mosquito Bandito, a solo guy who plays electric guitar and drums at the same time, was a rock ‘n’ roll freakshow that had guys standing around watching as if staring at a rare Pontiac GTO with the hood up.
A little past midnight The Shanks stumbled onto the filthy carpeted space O’Leaver’s calls a stage. Smart ones in the crowd stood behind the railing or along the bar, while a group of 20 or so stood in front of the band within arm’s reach, close enough to throw beer cans at them as they tore into their set of fast, angry songs.
Ten minutes into the set, I headed to the can. When I came back, frontman Jeff Ankenbauer’s face had turned into a horror movie — a red trail trickled down between his eyes. He smeared it across his forehead and then lethargically stared at his hand, covered in his own blood. A bar regular explained: “You missed it, man, Jeff just busted a beer bottle with his face!” In fact, it had been a bottle of Rolling Rock that I’d just bought for Little Brazil bassist/New Lungs frontman Danny Maxwell. Ankenbauer had been calling over and over: “Someone give me a beer.” D-Max had poured the Rolling Rock into his mouth, then Ankenbauer took the bottle and smashed it on his own forehead. And the Philistines roared.
As the night wore on, some guy nobody knew shoved his way into the crowd, intent on starting a mosh pit that no one wanted. More shoving ensued, but it was harmless … for awhile.
The set was joyful punishment not only for Ankenbauer, who redefined himself as an amped zombie frontman, but for everyone on stage. Bass player Johnny Vrendenburg and guitarist Austin Ulmer looked like they’d been up for three days straight. Guitarist Todd VonStup had a look on his face that was a cross between devilish mischief and seething anger. It was just like old times, except for the finality of it all. The on-stage violence/groping was good-natured camaraderie, nothing less.
Then came Saturday night. Opening band Whyte Bitch (a.k.a. ex-Fag Cop from Lawrence) provided the pre-show sharpened angst. The Shanks came on to a half-empty room, with most of the crowd outside smoking. Before long, the fearless again packed the space in front of the stage, including Ankenbauer’s giant brother.
Crazy mosh-pit guy was back, doing the same shove-you-shove-me let’s-mosh shtick from the night before, pushing it too far and shoving Ankenbauer ass-over-teakettle into the drum set. Drums and cymbals fell like dominoes. It went downhill from there. Mosh-pit guy would eventually be fitted with a guitar to his face, about three feet from where I was standing. O’Leaver’s crack security personnel took it from there. Ankenbauer bellowed over the microphone, “That’s what happens when you f**k with us.” If you missed it, you can see it all on Vimeo.
After that, people kept a safer distance from the band. One girl who had gotten caught up in it dragged her boyfriend out, looking rather pissed. Someone should have warned her if you go to a Shanks show, there will be blood.
Unfortunately, what gets lost in all this is what always got lost at Shanks shows. Beneath the circus geek antics, there was a band on stage that never sounded better. By sticking Ankenbauer out front with a microphone, and placing stickman Jeff Lambelet on drums, the band found its perfect line-up. Slop had been replaced with precision, or the closest thing this band has ever gotten to it on stage.
For this one weekend, feedback howlers like four-chord anthem “Backstabber” and grisly murder ballad “Down By the River” emerged as well-crafted songs. Yes, songs. As strange as that sounds, the Shanks played music, dense with noise and energy, riffs and chords, rhythm and power. They played punk rock that seethed with the twisted life of those who wrote and performed it, who stood on the front line drunk or amped, doing whatever they could to make contact with the crowd, with a smile or a fist.
If there’s tragedy in the short, sharp story of The Shanks it’s that the pain and the anger and the violence, the blood and urine, the almost constant fighting, overshadowed what the band was and could have been. So many people missed the best part of The Shanks. The music part. ?
Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on the Omaha music scene. Check out Tim’s daily music news updates at his website, lazy-i.com, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.