There are two essential sides to Black Sarah. One is the heavy-riffing hard-rock power trio that recorded the 2006 Black Sarah album, with its overtones of Black Sabbath, the Amboy Dukes, Neil Young's Crazy Horse, and Blue Cheer; the other is the free-form, sort-of improvisational instrumental group that's likely to show up for a live performance.
The two sides aren't exclusive of each other. There's plenty of blissed-out guitar soloing on the record, and Black Sarah's psychedelic explorations in concert are all based around at least a rough draft of guitarist Bill Warden's songs. But it's a distinction worth noting.
For Warden, a spontaneous performance is almost always better—a more authentic representation of its particular combination of notes—than songs that are rehearsed, recorded in multiple takes, and worked to fit into an idea of what it ought to be.
"It doesn't get better," he says. "It came out of nowhere, you didn't know you were going to do it, but you caught it. That initial improvisation, to me, is more like a thing you'd put out than something that's been worked over and polished. It's not pure improvisation, but it's not a jam, either. You have to fill space. When you're playing live, you've got to make something happen, make contact with each other and the audience."
Black Sarah came together four years ago, after Warden and bassist Cain Blanchard's previous band, Newport, had just broken up. Drummer-about-town Carey Balch suggested the three form a new band to keep Newport's hard-rocking spirit alive.
"They did not say no," Balch says. "That band had broken up but I thought they should keep making music.... I thought at the time I'd just slip right in and it would be really easy. I found out I didn't know what I was doing. It was hard to play what Bill wrote and hard to play with Cain. But it made it more enjoyable."
All three members are busy with other bands—Balch in art-punk band New Brutalism, Warden and Blanchard in both Three Man Band and the five-piece psych-folk outfit New Madrid—so Black Sarah's shows have become increasingly infrequent in the last year or so. (Warden's also busy as a bartender at Pilot Light, where he has an undeserved reputation as a bit of a curmudgeon.) Even practices can be spaced apart by months instead of days; Warden says they'll be lucky to have one or two practices before their set with Monotonix this weekend. But that hasn't had much effect on the group's performances, in part because they're all so familiar with each other, in part because of the nature of the music.
"If two of us think we know what we're doing, the third guy can do whatever the fuck he wants," Warden says. "It'll be something new. He actually expresses himself. It sounds like something. That's true for a lot of beautiful recordings. Somebody's out of the loop but it works because they're out of the loop."
Black Sarah's exploratory and improvisational bent does mean the band departs from its heavy rock foundation in a live setting. A taped rehearsal from December featuring New Madrid member Lou Vesser reveals the group working in trance-like dirges and vaguely Middle Eastern melodies; long passages in the middle are marked by a hypnotic, delicate chaos, where all of the players seem to be following their own instincts but heading in the same musical direction. Even the most propulsive sections of the long, uninterrupted 23-minute session are leaner and more agile than the lumbering riffs on the album. Warden relies on clean, single-note guitar lines and Blanchard plays violin rather than bass, which makes the rhythms looser. Sometimes Balch's intent seems to be to hit the drums as hard as he can; here he seems to be following the melody and gently nudging the other players in new directions.
"There are certain loose parameters," Blanchard says of the band's wandering style. "When we play shows, we have an idea of the songs we're going to play. There's some sort of structure. It might just be two chords or a rhythmic base. It might not be 200 bars note-for-note, but it's not entirely off the cuff."