The world has caught up with itchy-O's post-apocalyptic aesthetic.
As cars filed into the Mission Ballroom parking lot on August 21 for a show by the 57-member performance troupe, a shroud of wildfire smoke concealed the mountains, the sun was nothing more than a dark red horizontal slit, and nearly every fan had donned a mask to help keep pandemic numbers low...and for the privilege of seeing a live act again.
The Mission Ballroom — a venue built to be the greatest mid-sized room in the country — hosted magnificent shows until March, when concerts were banned and rooms went dark. The Ballroom hadn't even been open a year, and now the building's fate seems as uncertain as the rest of the live-music industry, as uncertain as everything.
But first, security. Where vehicles were staged before the performance, most fans followed the laws of the event. Sadly, one van was stuffed like a clown car with revelers who refused to stay inside. They appeared to look at the long list of rules, decide to violate them and check off their misdeeds one by one. Wear masks: Forget it. Stay inside your vehicle at all times: No way. Don't close-talk to event security: Six inches, baby. Always do what they say: Hell, no. While they yacked about being fans, they were risking future shows. Fortunately, security dogged them gracefully, and they eventually submitted to the CDC-inspired itchy-O guidelines.
Eventually, cars were allowed to drive into the performance section of the lot, where they parked far apart from each other in a massive semicircle surrounding the main staging area and turned their radios to a designated FM channel. A procession of itchy-O members soon walked in from the north, beating drums and carrying banners, some taking their positions at the front, others weaving around the cars. Circles topping poles were lit on fire. The band began to play its relentless percussion and blasted horns: Wake up, the world has changed, things are bleak, but there is mystery, magic and revelry to be created.
Itchy-O is a project that has adapted over the years. It started with a couple of members playing noise rock accompanied by experimental films. Then it became a marching band that would crash public events. More recently, it has billed itself as an avant-garde performance troupe, borrowing cultural artifacts from around the world and creating chaotic magic rituals.
How would the pandemic change the group's work?
The Sypherlot proved far less claustrophobic than an indoor itchy-O performance. It gave audience members a chance to see more than what's immediately in front of them, to dig into each component of the production and see how neatly organized it is, with fully-fleshed-out characters. The outdoor setting allowed the group to expand its pyrotechnic wizardry with blasts of flames and showers of fiery sparkles, and the lit-up circles ignited the ritual all night long.
Over the years, itchy-O has collected massive inflatable and sculptural creatures that made occasional appearances throughout the night in a sharp contrast to the costuming. Some performers, inspecting cars and walking mechanically through the lot, wore militaristic jackets; others had more of a steam-punk vibe; core performers wore absurdist hats that looked like something from a Jodorowsky movie. Everybody was in black. Some danced, others rode bikes with electronic gadgetry, and many snuck around. Some lurked.
The masked performers never broke character as they scrutinized, alienated and forced participants to engage. For people resistant to interactive experiences, Itchy-O can be terrifying. For those willing to be immersed in the spectacle, the group's performances are transcendent. This certainly was.
The music itself spanned the rhythms of war, screeches of madness, bleating goats and demonic incantations; it was noisy and hallucinatory, a highly orchestrated wildness.
As the show crescendoed in a grand finale and ended in flames, the members paused to pay tribute to the voice of some deity, demon or monster. Then fans blasted their horns in approval, which continued as itchy-O disappeared to the north, leaving a fountain of sparkling fire dying out as we all caught our breath.
As we drove away, our cars rattled like they were falling apart; people pulled to the side of the road to see what had happened. The band had tied junk to suction cups attached to our cars, and as though we were newlyweds leaving our wedding, the sounds of the performance followed us home.
"You're dragging something," a man shouted from his SUV a few miles away.
We were. Another night alive with itchy-O.
Itchy-O Sypherlot: Drive-In Radio Bath continues with two performances each on August 28 and August 29; tickets are $100 to $125 and available at itchy-O's website.
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