On 13 October, I saw King Buffalo for the second time in 2022. While I had heard of them before the onset of the pandemic-an intentional and relevant mention, as they released a trilogy of albums during that time–this psychedelic trio hailing from Rochester, New York, didn’t get seriously on my radar until last year. And their music has seeped so deeply within me that I cannot go a day without diving deep into their heady landscapes of grooves and riffs that cosmically alternate between soulful reflection and headbanging pummeling.
King Buffalo – Atsuko Chiba
Velvet Underground, Toronto – 13 October 2022
Words: Sunil Singh
Photography: Melanie Webster
Opening for King Buffalo were Atsuko Chiba, a five-piece Canadian band from Montreal. It had been a busy month, so I didn’t have a chance to find out about this band who have been around since 2013, coincidentally the same time as the headliners, until the week of the show. Soon as I listened/watched some of their stuff, it took me only seconds to gravitate to their sound.
This show was already being logged into my head as being epic. To say I wasn’t disappointed with my prognostication would be an understatement.
The Velvet Underground is a long, dingy-looking bar. Simple lighting and a simple layout. A physical irony considering both bands play music that is as complex and challenging as it gets in 2022. On the left side of the stage is an exposed brick wall, which added this nice organic touch of comfort and intimacy.
Before the show, I had the opportunity to talk to a few of the band members, who were unsurprisingly nice and ridiculously modest–a typical Canadian trademark. I remarked that it might be a challenge for all five members to fit on the stage. They responded, laughing, “we’ve played smaller”. Flexibility and adaptability are usually a part of the story of any rock band that plays music that is on the edge, generally out of detection of the mainstream.
As a writer, it is relatively easy for me to come up with words to describe things, especially music. When Atsuko Chiba started their set, the “pen” in my head just wasn’t taking to what I was hearing/seeing. It was saying don’t write. Just watch, listen, and absorb. And, let me tell you, there is lots to absorb with this band. Not only do they sound from a literal future, but their music just has so many different things going on. So while my brain was having difficulty describing their music, emotionally, where it really counts, they were crushing me.
Atsuko Chiba has two talented singers, each capable of holding a band on their own. Together, they add to the ridiculous fusion/interplay between sounds–sounds that are never competing, instead embracing each other like a warm hug from a friend you haven’t seen in a long time.
Throughout their set, I had a whole spectrum of musical reflections–Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, Jane’s Addiction, and Smashing Pumpkins, to name just a few. But, their music, as already alluded to, feels like it came from some Blade Runner future. The songwriting is, as from their Bandcamp description, “offbeat”, and their moments of musical dissonance/funk just throw all the musical influences I mentioned into this blender that prevents you from hearing any of the “parts” with more than a fleeting wave of attraction. One of my favourite moments was one of the lead singers–it is so hard to find personal information about the band–absolutely nailed the singing/poetic styling of Phil Lynott! Until that moment, I had never heard a singer come even close to capturing the energy and magic of Lynott.
So riveting was watching Atsuko Chiba perform their craft with passion and precision that the only way to fully absorb and appreciate their performance was to swallow it whole as one big long 50-minute jam of decadent musical exploration. What added to their intimate performance was their buoyant and interactive nature. They didn’t deliver their set with steely indifference, which could have easily happened. No, they smiled. They played. They blew everyone away.
While they have been around for a long time, the band, in their own admission, doesn’t play live a lot. So, anyone who was in attendance got a very special, rare performance from the band. All I can say is go to Bandcamp, buy everything, grab a good set of headphones, and a comfortable chair, and get ready to embark on the futuristic trip that is uniquely Atsuko Chiba.
Few bands could follow such a surprisingly mind-blowing set. King Buffalo is one of them.
As I waited to see them, I knew this would be the last time I would ever see them in such a small venue. This is the same band that played Burning Man and in the Swiss Mountains earlier this year. The aura of this band would not be contained in this space. We would be fully awash with the heavy psych in the most concentrated amounts possible. The effect of this? Read on.
Every King Buffalo show starts with Ecliptic, a heavily synth-driven song from Dead Star, being played on a tape before the band hits the stage. It sounds like Depeche Mode with a slightly doomy feel. It reminds me of when Metallica used to always come on with the theme from The Good, Bad, and the Ugly, giving them an identifiable signature to their live shows. People were already howling at an empty stage to basically the sound of keyboards.
Ladies and gentlemen, King Buffalo, has reached a cult status in this genre that is right up there with the legendary Kyuss.
If I had to personally put together a playlist for their live show, it wouldn’t have been too off the mark of what I saw tonight, especially considering how they mix up the songs every night–their catalogue is too dense and deep to play the same songs every night. The first song of the night was the slightly obscure Eta Carinae, also from Dead Star. This song, like so many of their songs, is just jammed with so many seamless tempo/chord changes. And, while the audience was already ripe with appreciation, the first swell of noticeable cheering came during the song’s halfway point, where it goes from quirky jamming to one of the dozens of signature King Buffalo riffs. I was one of those who stopped drinking his beer to yell in approval.
Next up was the short, catchy Silverfish, which seemed like the perfect introduction to Regenerator, the self-titled song of their recent album. The song is a happy gallop through the poppy fields of psychedelia that gleefully fuses Pink Floyd tones with Allman Brothers jamming, with the ending feeling as buoyant as a classic song like Jessica. So early on, Sean McVay, the singer/lead guitarist, was grinning and looking around at band members to let everyone know he was “feeling it”, and so was the whole Toronto audience Sean!
Eye of the Storm, from Longing To Be The Mountain, felt like the night was officially christened to be an interstellar journey aboard the starship King Buffalo. This sounds really weird, but the show could have ended right there, and I would have been musically satiated. There is some weird alchemy with how the band puts together soundscapes, giving the illusion that you have been listening to them much longer than the actual length of the songs. So true was this feeling that when they played Mammoth next, it felt like they were starting their “second set” of the night.
Mammoth ends on such a light note that it only seemed fitting to hit an altogether different gear. Shadows fulfilled that request, a song which sounds just as dreary and dank as its title. Only halfway through the show, and the pacing and song selection was spot on. To hear, “I’ve been adrift for so long now, my bones are littered with rust” was paradoxically warming and reassuring–especially live. After this, the band heavily leaned into the guitar closing of the song, even more so than the studio version.
Something strange was happening. I was feeling wiped. King Buffalo were playing like a musical tsunami, where each song was overwhelming, pulling you under. I actually had to go to the back of the venue and sit down to watch one of my favourite songs, Kerosene. The only other time I had felt like this was when I saw Henry Rollings thirty years ago. I left after 2 hours–he was still playing–because I couldn’t absorb any more. My body and mind were fried.
The same thing was happening tonight but on a more emotional and spiritual level. Not only did King Buffalo play Kerosene on all cylinders firing, but they also did an extended version of it. I just kept shaking my head to myself in complete unbridled awe at the sheer intensity of the band.
I found enough energy to pull myself up and join the crowd upfront for their final songs, which ended majestically with Cerberus, which has a chugging riff whose personality sounds like a perfect companion to the Webb telescope–searching and yearning for the deepest probe into our universe/ourselves.
King Buffalo, with song selection, intimate venue, minimal lighting, and trippy backdrop of visuals, gave as much as any band can give live. We live for these moments as fans. So, it was almost unfathomable for the band to play another song after this. But they did. They came back on for an encore because Toronto fans would not let the band leave until they did so. And, while I already confessed that I had tapped out and already flagged this show as one of the best I have seen, I was curious as to what could be offered as their final song.
King Buffalo came on with Drinking From The River Rising, from their first album Orion. The song starts off with an Eastern/meditative tone, breathing an air of final rejuvenation. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that is a musical contradiction I felt.
What an absolutely special night with special people and special bands. Sometimes the best words and photos fail to deliver the experience of live music, especially if they are psychedelic journeys of the mind and soul. Proudly, and not too surprisingly, this was one of them.