The first thing I noticed upon listening to Education’s Gordon Raphael-produced Age Cage was its distorted, “dirty” sound. I also knew it was an album tailored to explode in a concert setting. But what Education pulled off April 8 at Sam’s on exceeded everyone’s — perhaps including their own — expectations. It was a brutal, loud three-guitar attack by a skilled now-quintet that’s happy to be playing with each other.
But it didn’t happen like that from the get go. First, comedian Matthew van Hellen (in his Mookie Hooper character, complete with balls the size of a Buick) was hilarious introducing Marcus Rubio and the Gospel Choir of Pillows’ killer set (“Goddamn Respiratory,” a new song, is absolutely amazing), but he overstayed his welcome when doing the same for Education. Guitarist Brian Baker and singer Philip Bowman seemed to be edging him gently off the stage, but the guy wouldn’t leave. It all happened in a matter of one or two minutes, but I felt like I was watching a non-Buñuel version of The Exterminating Angel, a film in which a bunch of guests are unable to leave a party. Yet even after he finally left, problems persisted.
Opener “James Rodgers,” from the previous album, was a fierce rocker that seemed to have all the distortion concentrated within it, and the three-guitar mayhem continued through “Hey Shoot It.” There were no shades of gray, just one single huge guitar on steroids denying the song’s colors. But recovery came on the third song, when Bowman skipped a line to turn off an amp during “Bells,” and there you had them: a band enriched by the addition of legitimate fifth member Allen van Hellen (Matthew’s brother), whose passion on guitar, keyboard, percussion, and helping create three-part harmonies added a welcome vertigo.
From then on, it was a frontal, merciless assault, and its intensity didn’t diminish even when they changed instruments. “Number 20,” dedicated to Manu Ginobili (hear it in the video below), sounded even better than on record. And Andrew Kerr’s guitar solo on “Sleep Annie” had the tenderness and elegance the song required, while the others (Bowman on keyboards, van Hellen on percussion, Baker on bass) went all-out, no prisoners taken. They switched again for “Skies of the East” (Kerr on bass, van Hellen on guitar, and Baker on bass), and that’s when it hit me. I realized who Bowman reminded me of. Actually, he is a peculiar monster: he has the torso, throat, and attitude of Roger Daltrey, and the legs of Elvis (next time you see him live, observe him carefully; he’s a beautiful freak of nature). The only thing he didn’t do was show his abs like the Who frontman, but he didn’t need to — Education showed its own abs with genuine hits like “Owen,” the album opener. At that point, the crowd started clapping to Alton Jenkins’ pulsating bass drum and Sam’s became a euphoric pink-and-blue balloon party. With Bowman on bass, Kerr on keyboards, van Hellen on percussion, and Baker on guitar, the song reached its peak with van Hellen punishing the snare drum as if it had stolen his girlfriend.
“Even if the government shuts down, we’re still going to play,” said Bowman just before “Half the Tommy,” an unreleased rocker they play for fun (record it!). I checked the news on my cell phone, and the New York Times headline read:
“DEAL AT LAST MINUTE AVERTS SHUTDOWN.”
It was 16 minutes past midnight, and the party was complete.