By the time the Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra finished loading in at the Empty Bottle on February 27, somewhere between 40 and 50 amps filled the stage and ran in a line almost the entire length of the club’s main room. My Fender Deluxe Reverb was set up on the floor in front of the stage. Going into our performance, we had a lot of things working against us. We’d never all been in the same room together–I’d responded to the same recruitment e-mail most everybody else had–and many of us had never even met. No one, not even Plastic Crimewave, aka Steve Krakow, our ringleader and conductor, had more than a vague idea what we were going to do once we started playing. In the e-mail, which he’d sent out in January, he’d explained that he wanted us to “send vibrations and ripples into the multiverse for positive change” and “perform a sonic exorcism on the evil that rules this land.”

Fortunately, with such a big turnout the sound was going to be impressive no matter what we did. The crowd of performers milling around before the set with beers in their hands was bigger than the whole audience at midweek shows I’ve been to at the Bottle. Though a few people seemed to have gotten the e-mail at random–nobody recognized them, and not even Krakow could guess who’d forwarded the invite–the lineup was stacked with ringers all the same. Sure, there was the fortysomething guy who told Krakow he’d come out because he thought it might be his only chance to perform in public, but there were also members of the Ponys, Coughs, White/Light, Ambulette, the Functional Blackouts, and Krakow’s band the Plastic Crimewave Sound, among many others. After we turned on all the amps to make sure their combined power draw wouldn’t black out the whole block, Krakow gave us a quick briefing. He said a couple things that sounded familiar from his e-mail–that our goal was spiritual transcendence and the enactment of some sort of chaos magick, and that we were supposed to play in the key of E–but left everything else up to us.

Spiritual transcendence is pretty tough to come by, even with 51 electric guitars, but Krakow has a knack for pulling off nutty-sounding ideas–he persuaded Drag City to print and distribute his handwritten, hand-drawn psych zine, Galactic Zoo Dossier, so he could afford to include sets of “Damaged Guitar God” trading cards, and for the past three years he’s organized the Million Tongues festival, where he routinely books folk or outsider artists who never seem to leave their houses, much less tour. I mean, I wasn’t expecting to feel any magick myself, but I can’t say I would’ve been completely surprised if we’d somehow managed to levitate the Empty Bottle.

The Guitarkestra had been in development for a long time: Krakow made an attempt to assemble a similarly large multi-instrumental group at Roby’s in the late 90s, but the club folded before he could make it happen. “I’ve always been into the communal jam thing,” he says. “But there are precedents. There was a 60s band called the Scratch Orchestra where they got a ton of people who couldn’t really play all together. There was this free-jazz guy named Alan Silva, who had this thing called the Celestial Communication Orchestra, which was a vast, crazy group. And of course the Glenn Branca guitar symphonies. I always liked the mass-scale idea.”

Krakow’s original idea was to recruit 23 guitarists for the Guitarkestra–it’s a special number to fans of Discordianism and psychedelic magick heads like Aleister Crowley–but he ended up with more than twice that many, plus a handful of nonguitarists. Soundman and engineer Jeremy Lemos brought an oscillator setup, and his wife, Gwen, played an amplified Indian harmonium. Aleksandra Tomaszewska of Aleks & the Drummer sang and her bandmate, Deric Criss, played a trap set. A trombonist from Mucca Pazza came out, along with several videographers and a couple guys doing audio recordings–including ubiquitous show taper Aadam Jacobs, who set up a guitar and a practice amp back at his usual spot by the mixing board.

When we all plugged into our amps to check levels, it quickly turned into what a bystander described as “Guitar Center times 50”–a howling mass of unorchestrated wankery and feedback. Krakow shushed everybody from the stage and introduced the group, then directed everyone’s attention to a jagged geometric sigil on a poster-size sheet of paper hanging on the wall behind Criss. He told the crowd of about 150, “There’s an evil in this land.” During the set, performers and spectators alike were supposed to focus on the sigil, then cast the evil out of their minds. “Don’t think about it again,” Krakow said. After a few more words about chaos magick, we were on.

The thing about playing in a band with 60 or so members is that it’s really hard to tell exactly what’s going on. With my earplugs in I could hear my amp and the amps of my immediate neighbors–we were packed in shoulder to shoulder–but all the other guitars fused together into a roar that sounded like being underwater next to a jet engine. I never have to turn my amp up past three and a half onstage with my own band, but I had to crank it up to nearly six for it to be audible from a few feet away.

After we were done people told me that some of the guitarists were running up and down blues scales, others were playing delay-heavy noise, and Matt Clark from Ambulette had taken a portable amp into the men’s room to play solos for guys who had to take a piss. Of course I had no idea any of that was going on. I didn’t so much hear our sound as feel it–it had crossed the line from an auditory phenomenon into something almost purely bodily. It was the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve seen Sunn 0))).

Half out of curiosity and half out of journalistic duty, I made an effort to participate in what I guessed might be a spiritual way–I let myself go and, as the hippies say, “got free” in the music’s flow. A weird buzz came over me, sort of like the exaggerated mind-body disconnect I’d only ever experienced after taking really decent hallucinogenic drugs. I came back to myself after what felt like half an hour but was probably more like a minute or two and went back to following the drums, which I could barely make out over the din. Eventually Krakow was able to exercise a bit of control over the group with some conductorlike pantomime, and the massive electrified yawp subsided into the buzz of a few dozen idling amps. The sigil was gone from its spot on the wall, but I don’t know if somebody took it down or if it fell on its own.

Maybe just feeling like some magick might have happened isn’t too different from it actually happening. By Krakow’s reckoning, at any rate, the shit went down, and he’s already planning another Guitarkestra, which he hopes will happen this summer at the Hyde Park Art Center. “People told me all sorts of amazing stuff about puking and having visions,” he said. “Supposedly someone in the crowd just started kissing people at random. I think it went good.”

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.