Being in the Philippines for three weeks and working your ass off will throw off your ability to blog. Heard some records but no kind of a live music/social context. So I’ve been making up for lost time. Last weekend’s music was about how much of what you love is assimilated into your personal language, how much you hang around your neck intact, like a medallion, and the kind of swagger you need to pull that off.
Leaving aside the disappointment of Marah’s last minute (literally) cancellation, since there are conflicting sides to every story, the weekend started with Colin Gawel and the Lonely Bones at Skully’s. I was never the biggest fan of Gawel’s first band, Watershed, and by the time Watershed made some really great records – and believe me, The More it Hurts, The More it Works, is as good a powerpop record as has ever come out of this town, along with Gaunt’s Bricks and Blackouts and the first Pat Dull and the Media Whores record – I wasn’t paying attention. So I’ve seen his solo work a number of times mostly solo and acoustic, but this was only the second time I caught him with his solo band.
What’s good is Gawel’s increasingly supple, strong voice, a rock solid rhythm section with original Watershed drummer Herb Schupp providing a sturdier crunch and some higher octane propulsion than Dave Masica, and Dan Cochran of Big Back 40 on bass, never overplaying but always knowing what needs to happen next, and at least half the songs. What’s not as good is the second guitarist and organ player who seems only to add an MOR gloss and second everyone else’s lines, arrangements that drift into hokey a little too often, and some of the lyrics.
Some of the songs lose power in the filling out of the details, including “Lonely Bones” where the gripping vocal delivery blends into wallpaper and the pedestrian lyric needs to carry too much weight, and “Chemotherapy” the full-on catchiest of the new material given a shine reminiscent of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Band from Louisian’” and not in a particularly good way. The weaknesses in lyrics, from Lonely Bones (principally the conceit “She’s got lonely bones”) to Superior (which works against its gorgeous, keening hook “Superior is deeper and farther / Superior never gives up her daughters / They stay by the cold, cold water” with verses that drift from hard-scrabble reality into just mundanity, such as “Her husband calls her on the phone / Tells her he’s never coming home / It’s too cold up there / It’s warmer in Milwaukee”), so close to hitting the mix of Springsteen and Raymond Carver he’s clearly going for that it’s harder to take when he misses the mark. Also hurt by the perfect, clear sound mix so every word is front and center, in a way muddier sound might obscure some of the misses.
But when it’s good, as in the new song “The Words We Say”, or a spot-on but not slavishly recreative Tom Petty cover, it’s an eminently satisfying thing. He’s got such a perfect grasp of a consistent tone, and the best gift for a hook of damn near anybody in town I know, hooks that you can’t get out of your head for days, and the voice like the flicker flame of a faraway town, warm and comforting across the dark, with enough confidence and soul to sell his songs with an earnestness that almost never gets cloying. And even in the weaker solo material, hearing an old Watershed song like “I-65” lets you know how far he’s come, grappling with what matters to him where the former song was all received wisdom and tough-guy road movie/Springsteen cliches.
After 45 minutes of that, we bounced to Cafe Bourbon Street for the Savage Pinkos 7” release. Much like Gawel, the Savage Pinkos (born out of the ashes of the Sick Thrills) are one of the few local bands who can headline after a rock-solid bill of touring bands and still have it feel wholly deserved and like it’s the proper order of things. We sadly missed Reverend Deadeye but got there in time for the whole set by Midnight Creeps, who recently came through town opening for and (in part) backing Moto, but here got to stretch out in a way that felt a little constrained by the (admittedly great) Moto songs.
A great pop-metal frontwoman, Jenny Hurricane, barking out tales of love gone wrong and love gone right in the most bruising of ways, and waking up two days later trying to figure out what happened, or just not giving a fuck, going from a grown to a surprising sweetness, often on songs that seem diametrically opposed to that delivery until you realize the tension is the point. Two guitar players who fuse the sleaze-punk garage snapshots speeding past with the bigger crunch of classic ‘70s punk and even pub-rock, riffs that are catchy even while they’re pulling a sleight of hand to convince you they’re not catchy. And the rhythm section who could play anything but strip it down enough that they’re an echoing wall of fire silhouetting everything else. All coming together in an amazing cover of David Bowie’s “Hang On To Yourself” that was all the aggression and sex that almost got lost in Bowie’s original concept record. Shots were poured and people were hugging and flying into each other and all was right with Columbus.
Then the Savage Pinkos came on and they were the icing and some spiked cherries on that cake. Fresh off their European tour, and ready to kick their hometown’s ass, they accomplished that mission in spades. A more complex, thornier band than Sick Thrills was but still with that classic punk underpinning. Held down by Donovan Roth’s always solid bass playing and one of the best drummers I’ve ever heard him with (sadly, Myspace wasn’t any help at finding names for anyone I don’t already know), with a guitarist from Vegetative State who makes even by-the-numbers punk sound fresh, and some slower, multi-part tunes with lacerating surges of guitar feedback (undercut by someone saying, “Fuck Sonic Youth”, defusing accusations of pretension before they started). And Jon Slak’s still an engaging frontman even if sometimes he seems more interested in gesticulating with the mic than singing in it, but he puts it across well and you don’t miss the lyrics that you don’t catch or the vocals that end up buried in the groove when the groove’s this damn good.
Maybe I give Gawel too hard a time for having the guts to put his lyrics up front and center when, for all I know, the lyrics to Savage Pinkos could be much worse, I just can’t hear them. Maybe saying “singer-songwriter music’s more about its words than straight punk” is a cop out giving me license to pick and choose what I’m listening for when. But I think not claiming different kinds of music have different strengths is as big a lie as I know. I want a different thing from a tiny, loud band in a tiny, loud room than from someone shredding his heart on an acoustic guitar. I’ll always want both.
The next day we headed for Cleveland for The Constellations and Eli “Paperboy” Reed and the True Loves at the Beachland Ballroom, maybe my favorite big room in Ohio to hear music (if you consider Southgate House technically in Kentucky, then definitely my favorite big room). I didn’t know anything about The Constellations except they’d worked with Cee-Lo and were from Atlanta, and when they came out with bass, drums, one guitar, two female background singers, and two keyboard players, plus a frontman in a Tom Waits undershirt and leather fedora, hopes were not high… until they started playing.
A fortyfive minute set of songs that avoided being “funky” at every turn but still came out ferocious, funny dance music. The frontman’s rapping closer to spoken word and his singing used his limited voice to the edge of its potential, most obvious on a cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”. The whole set came from the same place as that record – sex surging, breathing underneath melancholy and sadness crusting underneath sex, and virtuosity burned hot enough and run through a wire so it comes out at 120-proof music of a specific intent.
But that’s not to say it was monolithic, every one of those great grooves had interesting textures and left turns, and noir-pop of the late ‘50s breezed through churchy soul of the ‘60s and cocaine disco but with an interesting self-awareness, always twisting and winking at the musical and lyrical clichés, never satisfied with just pastiche. Elements carefully picked like tchotchkes from a junk store and artfully assembled, so the overall impression is this could be the house band for a David Lynch movie if David Lynch made a movie about a cartoon dog solving crimes. One thing the Constellations do better than any band I’ve seen in a while is use of vocals, with the drummer handling the low-end on his harmonies and the two female background singers (also playing tambourine and assorted percussion) not only in the high but sometimes also dipping below the lead singers voice, and occasionally even giving the impression of strings but without doing an impression of strings.
Attention also has to be paid to the lack of ego in this band. Everyone knows they’re great at what they’re doing but no one needs to get too far in front to show that, in a lesser band with this kind of talent, everything would stop for a guitar solo or those greasy keyboard runs, but here it’s just playing their part. The kind of band where a guitar player will only play two bars for the entire song and play cowbell and woodblock for the rest of it, and seem perfectly happy to do it. And the balls in structuring a set, the first time (I think) they’ve ever played Cleveland, opening with a long intro of shoegaze-kraut-funk, and ending with the Tom Waits quoting “Step Right Up”, what feels like a 9 minute song with spoken verses and a big anthemic chorus that never lets you just embrace it, and their new single “Setback”, “Perfect Day” which I think has shown up on soundtracks and regional hit “Felicia” (their catchiest song by a mile) are buried in the middle of the set. Hell, I’m even braving The Basement in a few weeks to see them with Electric Six.
The headliner Eli “Paperboy” Reed and his band The True Loves came out twenty minutes later ready to prove he’s the headliner for a reason, and he delivered on every promise. The first thing you notice, if you’ve been following his work for a while, is that in his absence the voice has gotten both harsher and sweeter. The horn charts pop more, and the rhythm section latches onto different kinds of classic rhythm. It never stops being a genre exercise but when it’s executed so beautifully, who cares?
Still one of the best frontmen I’ve ever seen, and the best of the new material are the best songs he’s ever written. Including “Help Me’ which could’ve been an OV Wright Backbeat single, “Every night, there’s an invitation / It gets so hard to resist temptation / But when my mind starts to wander / I’m making love to you / And I know your love / Will see me through” but more than the words, the high note at the end of that line sells the song, between the intro, “I know it’s hard, when you can’t see your lady, even for a day, but when I’m going on the road for months…. I just need to say, ‘Lady, you’re gonna need to help me, and I’m gonna need to help you…’” and the exhortations to the crowd, “I need you all to help me on this!" Or “Name Calling” in the Joe Tex slyly sexy word-playbook, “It went from name calling / To calling my name”.
The early-Marvin Gaye riffing on “Tell Me What I Want to Hear”, using a higher range of his voice – without shooting into falsetto – which segues into a perfect “Twistin’ The Night Away”, not just showing how he knows his place in the history of the music but also that he understands the connections between other artists/scenes in his history. But the best moment of the show came after the band gave him a break and did an instrumental, he and his organ player/harmony singer did “Am I Wasting My Time”, my favorite song off his last album, and it silenced the whole crowd. You strip away the horns and the rhythm section and you’ve still got great songs put across with the kind of sincerity and earnestness that always characterized the great soul singers. He’s not there yet, but he’s got a chance to be that good, and as he gets there, he’s still one of the best live shows you could see.
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