SCARCE, BLIZZARD OF 78, DIRTY TRUCKERS, THE CRUSHING LOW
T.T. the Bear’s, Cambridge, MA
This show was picked as The Noise live show of the month so my expectations are high. Opening the night is never easy, but The Crushing Low’s Matt Belyea thrashes his tom toms and Scott Lerner bashes out the chords of “40 Miles till Detroit” to a crowd that is quickly picking up in numbers. Ed Healy plays the serious role as lead singer/guitarist and Chris Mikes creates his own little world on bass. This new band needs some time to connect more deeply to their songs emotionally and rhythmically. By the end of the set with “Heaven Surrounds” and “Underwater Moon” they hit their stride with some distinctive wah guitar and mallet-driven drums and the decent sized audience shows their appreciation.
Dirty Truckers surprise me right away with their tight punchy playing. Each member adds clear distinction to the group’s Cheap Trick/Steve Earle-type rock sound. After fill-in drummer Jesse Mayer breaks his bass drum pedal and steals a replacement from the back room, the bands keeps the audience occupied. John Brookhouse wows me with his guitar solos and crisp tone. Jamie Griffith holds down a broad solid bottom while Tom Baker is the easy-going playful front guy (with an occasional high kick) and slings a guitar to keep the sound spectrum full. Their material is straightforward, not too challenging, but not boring either. They’re both rhythmically and melodically excellent. I think I missed an important fact—Jesse’s drum set has a great full sound, and his skills give the band a distinct kick.
Blizzard of 78 is in the family tree of Anastasia Screamed and Delta Clutch. Pip, the flashy lead singer, reminds me of a more attractive Van Morrison. He mentions that his daughter, who’s in attendance, is celebrating her 18th birthday and that Chick (Scarce) taught her everything to do with Silly Putty. The band has developed their own brand of soulful pop—but I wouldn’t call it a style that brings a blizzard to mind. Their best song comes three quarters the way through their set with “Mercy,” a real builder with lots of “oh oh ohs.” This one builds so nicely that it feels like a blizzard in the making. Okay, I can’t be right all the time.
Scarce hasn’t played in 12 years and they’re here tonight to whip up some of their old magic. Magic is what this three-piece is all about. The charisma and chemistry between Chick Graining and Joyce Raskin creates a tidal wave of energy with a mighty sexual undertow. They’ve got strained vocals with strange harmonies that go well with their poetic catchy songs. Joyce still does her trademark backward kick with her bass dwarfing her petite frame. Chick’s got magical eyes and a smile to match. His guitar playing may appear to be normal, but upon closer inspection he does things… just differently. Joe Propatier is a solid madman on his drum kit. It’s great to see the band together again—but what used to be 110 precent is now 90 percent—and maybe that can be blamed on the mix. It’s still better than what most bands can muster. Highlights for me are “Sideways” and “Days Like This.” Billy Ruane jumps on the stage to fire up the fans to get Scarce back for their encore of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” (T Max)
KRISTIN HERSH, TANYA DONELLY
The Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA
10/6/07 (second of two shows)
Kristin Hersh just might be my favorite weirdo, and I always love seeing her and Tanya Donelly split a bill together, since it fascinates me how they’ve evolved since they went their separate ways many years back. Kristin is one of rock’s truly captivating presences, all icy glare, guttural voice and slow side-to-side shaking of her head. And in a dark room with bright blue background, everything about her just seems huge. Despite having no accompaniment other than her acoustic guitar, there’s never the feeling of sameness that tends to creep into solo sets by lesser folk. Her own material comes off cutting and clever, as always, but two of the set’s standout tracks are the grisly Appalachian murder ballad, “Banks of the Ohio”, which is suitably chill-inducing, and the traditional “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” The evening is off to an impressive start.
Tanya doesn’t appear in concert very much anymore, which is a shame, as her excellent set showcases just how truly rewarding her post-Throwing Muses/ post-Breeders career has been. While old Belly favorites like “Slow Dog” and “Dusted” are predictably met with enthusiastic approval, they are hardly overshadowed by her much more naked and overtly personal solo work. “Every Devil” and “Kundalini Slide” prove to be particularly effective, the former being one of the brutally honest marital portraits that made 2004’s Whiskey Tango Ghosts such a revelation, and the latter one of the sharply political observations that did the same for 2006’s This Hungry Life. It also helps that Tanya is a much better, much more nuanced, singer than she was ten years ago, and the mostly acoustic setup allows that improvement to shine through. It also showcases the many talents of the versatile Joe McMahon who spends most of the set on upright bass, but also chips in on electric bass and piano. This is a man who gives you the impression that you could throw anything in front of him and he wouldn’t flinch. This is just a gorgeous set.
While the two solo sets easily could have packed the place, the big draw here is the ultra-rare set of Throwing Muses songs the two, along with McMahon and Dean Fisher, play to close out the night. Things start off a little rocky, as the two ladies have some trouble remembering what key the opening “Counting Backwards” is in, but once they lock in, it’s a thing of beauty, albeit a bit of a twisted one, as noted by Kristin with her mid-set proclamation that “Throwing Muses songs are hard to play. We could have at least used some chords that actually exist and lyrics that make sense.” What makes total sense, though, is the way their two voices, Kristin’s smoky and Tanya’s sweet, meld together on the soothing (for them) closer “Two Step,” which serves as a perfect cap to the evening. With reunions all the rage these days, let’s hope this is simply an appetizer. (Kevin Finn)
MISSION OF BURMA, JONATHAN KANE’S FEBRUARY
The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA
9/23/07 (4:00 show)
Post-punk, conceptual art, and avant-architecture might not seem an obvious combination, but I’m pleased that someone had the vision to invite Mission of Burma to the ICA for a matinee. This certainly feels like an odd rock venue: daylight streams through scrim curtains; the amphitheater seating is cushy and plentiful; sailboats drift past in the harbor, visible through the tall windows. There is a reverent quiet before the performance, and a conspicuous absence of alcohol. However, Burma has always attracted a more refined rock crowd, so perhaps a museum is as fitting a venue as any for them.
Alas, before we can have dessert we must force down some peas and liver: enter Jonathan Kane’s February, of New York. Considering drummer Kane’s pedigree (he’s a co-founder of the abrasive Swans) I expect something at least a little dangerous. Instead we are offered an extended meditation on early American rock by Kane, a bassist, and four guitarists. The sonic options available to four guitars are nearly limitless (as demonstrated by Kane contemporary Glenn Branca); however, these poor hipsters are doomed to play slightly varied voicings of E major for the entire set while the reserved Kane keeps rigid time, only occasionally treats the audience to admittedly impressive flourishes. I think I get what Kane is doing—he’s paying a No Wave minimalist homage to the founders of rock and electric blues—but while the elders he references all play from the gut, Kane is all left brain.
Mission of Burma arrives with more than enough tonal diversity and explosive energy to make up for the openers. They begin with three from The Obliterati, including the pounding new anthem “2wice.” Classics like “Trem Two” and “Mica” also appear in the well-paced set. Shadow-member Bob Weston’s effected samples add an unusual, eerie texture to the mix. Despite their sonic grandeur, this is a modest band. Roger Miller’s battered Marshall sits on its road case near his few signature pedals; Peter Prescott’s idea of rock excess is a string of Christmas lights surrounding his drums. The spectacle instead is their cerebral rumbling rock which occasionally skirts collapse but always regains balance and sublime intensity. Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic” makes for a curious encore, and “Revolver” is woefully omitted, though I doubt anyone is disappointed. This is no nostalgia act—the band is as innovative and vigorous as ever. (Tim Graham)
MAX HEINEGG, HEIDI LEE & MIKE OOR (The Snowleopards), TOM SAVANT
Max Heinegg’s CD release party
Lizard Lounge, Cambridge, MA
I walk in on Tom Savant and get a front row seat. Tom has a cool, warm presence and is not afraid to strip his songs down to the lonely accompaniment of a ukulele. He almost avoids playing anything too catchy. I get the feeling he’d rather you listen to his songs a number of times to warm up to them instead of them grabbing you on the first listen. He keeps his banter light and funny, and quips with his band mates in the audience about song arrangements and upcoming gigs. He ends with his best—“You Kiss Like a Russian,” which goes to his extreme of catchiness.
Reviewing The Snowleopards in their two-piece mode is painful for me. Their material is great. Heidi’s vocals are more than impressive. Mike’s guitar playing is superb… with the exception of the volume he chooses to play at. Heidi’s mic feeds back throughout most of the performance because Mike’s guitar pushes the volume up so high (remember it’s only the two of them) that the soundman has to ride the vocal mic volume to keep Heidi heard. This is very frustrating when there’s so much talent on the stage. It ruins my appreciation of the material and talent. This same problem existed when I last saw the full electric version of The Snowleopards. The soundman confirms the reason for the sound problems with me at the end of the set.
I notice there are a number of Bang Camaro members in the audience and then remember that the CD release boy, Max Heinegg, is one of those many masculine lead vocalists. He takes the stage by his lonesome and does two songs in singer/songwriter mode. Then he tries something new. He puts down his guitar and brings out John Damask to back him on electric guitar. Soon bassist Justin Day and drummer Robert Gaggin join in and the full band of Jetlagger plays Max’s solid melodic material while Max limits himself to crooning. This band, once known as Say Hi To Lisa, is so good they practically steal the show from Max. But without Max’s strong material that might not be the case. The presentation is warm and family-like, which adds to the strength of this music community. (T Max)
SXIP’s Hour of Charm
A.R.T./Zero Arrow Club, Cambridge, MA
Who doesn’t love a circus? Or rather, a cabaret revue? For three weekends in September, Sxip Shirey and Amanda Palmer present a variety of national performance artists and a feature local act (week one is Amanda; week two is Erin McKeown). On the final night of the run, we see Uma Mimnagh (rope hanger acrobat), Greg Walloch (cerebral palsy comedian), A.J. Silver (champion rope-spinning cowboy), Danya Kurtz (ballad lounge singer), Sxip (ringmaster/storyteller/musician) and Boston’s own Emily Grogan Band. Closing the evening, she blasts her way through a terrific mini-set of her recent material—“Weathervane,” “Full Circle,” “Girl of Opportunity,” “R/Evolution,” and “End of the Line.” On that big stage, under that circle of lights, with her majestic hair, we can’t help feel we’re in the presence of a top-notch player. With her great band (Mark, Ken, and Steve), she radiates charm and conviction. Her voice, her beauty, and the sound are spectacular, which allows every instrument to shine. The audience, many of whom have barely heard of her, are thoroughly impressed. Overall, a fine balance of talent—great work all around! More please! (Mr. Curt)
The Mill Wharf Restaurant, Scituate, MA
With sun down and the no-see-ums out, best advice I can give you is to either slap on some bug spray or better yet, grab a beer at the wharf. To my surprise, one of Boston’s finest songwriters is performing acoustic at the bar. Dennis is playing a bluesier set than he would with his full band, but the music is solid and the songs sound as refreshing as an air conditioned room on a hot day. I feel like I’m at a local rock version of MTV Unplugged as Dennis strips down songs from his new album, Engagement, to their bare bones. One beer turns into three or four as his captivating singing and storytelling compels us to stay for just one more. (Kier Byrnes)
THE DARLINGS, BLACK FORTRESS OF OPIUM
Dodge Street Bar and Grill, Salem, MA
Black Fortress of Opium, described on their MySpace page as “rock, gothic, psychedelic,” is a four-piece fronted by Ajda the Turkish Queen. She appears onstage in black jeans, a black leather jacket, and white and black polka-dot top and sits down to play guitar for the first song, a haunting and slow lamentation inspired by, of all things, the neon sign of the Model Café. Another song opens with mournful, exotic, near-eastern sounding guitar—played exquisitely by Tony Savarino. The drums are played entirely with mallets which gives them a rich, undulating tone. The band’s performance onstage is subdued—Ajda remains seated for the entire set—but the music is so captivating that the people wandering about the bar become drawn to the the band.
The Darlings, a full six-piece country band, follow with two acoustic guitarists, an electric guitarist (who also plays with Willie Alexander), pedal steel player, bassist, and a drummer. They appear to have quite a following; the club is almost full. The vocals alternate between Kelly Knapp—her crystal clear voice is perfect for this music—and the lanky, long-haired Simon Ritt. The two have extraordinary harmonies. Highlights are “Old Friends and Empty Bottles,” an original with a classic country sound, and Tony Savarino joining them for Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here Again.” If this were Texas, the crowd would be two-stepping, but this is Salem; the band settles for an audience of head-bobbers. The crowd demands an encore; they oblige with John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind.” (Robin Umbley)
Bristol Studios, Boston, MA 10/8/07
Okay, I’m cheating here. This is not a review of a musical performance. On Monday afternoon, October 8th, I stop in at Bristol Studios’ open house. They offer a lot of services for budding musicians and pros alike, and their location, right across the street from Berklee School of Music must be good for business. I sit in on the Artist & Development seminar presented by Ric Poulin, one of Bristol’s owners. Ric is a very focused and organized individual who operates in reality and logic. He tells the room of about 30 people that there are less actual A&R people in the business and more business people. Labels have become more like distribution companies than developers of talent. They want finished product. Ric in the past has had a hit on an Atlantic subsidiary but never saw any real money. So he got into production and giving vocal lessons in the gospel and pop genre. He says that vocal styles have basically stayed the same since the ’60s—where as before that they were changing every decade since back in the ’20s. Ric developed a vocal method that no one else was teaching. He talks about open and closed vowel sounds and 21 artifacts of vocalizing. After many of his students wanted to see what kind of success Bristol had produced, Ric and his wife Laura decided to take a group up from the forming stages to being signed. That was back in 2001 when they put together a band of female divas—Jada. Jada is now signed to Motown Records. But getting back to how to develop yourself as an artist—when Ric with works with an individual he has them pick a singer who is their 10, then rates their abilities in comparison. Then works on getting the singer to raise that ability. He speaks of image—having professional photos, getting press, developing the product, and creating a demand. There’s also the importance today of having a website that turns vistors into fans. And then a key element—developing the show. After the seminar I went in for a free vocal lesson and did a short professional photo shoot. I look around the place; it’s well equipped with a full operating recording studio, a small performance room, and many rooms for rehearsals and lessons. I had to kick myself at the end of my stay for not planning time to catch Jada’s evening performance. Hopefully there will be a next time. http://www.bristolstudios.com (T Max)