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Nice melons: the Gourds at the Linda.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Roots Maneuvers

By Mike Hotter

The Gourds

The Linda, Aug. 27

God doesn’t make bands like the Gourds much anymore. You know, the sort of impromptu (well, at least back in 1994) brotherhood gang of twangers who you just know have shared hundreds of poker, dominoes, and billiards games, smoked many a pack and barbecued many a slab together, probably even got in a couple of fights for and against each other. Which was one of the strange things about last week’s Gourds show at the Linda: With a band of hyperliterate, alt-country rockers like the Gourds in your midst, you expected at least some surreptitious whiskey sipping, but the only beer guzzlers in this heretofore dry establishment were on the stage, for the Gourd guys have earned the right to drink where and when they want to.

As far as sheer sound, concept and attitude, what we’ve got here is the Band in their prime fronted by Americana autodidacts who love George Jones and Townes Van Zandt—and most likely Black Flag and the Minutemen. Bassist and co-leader Jimmy Smith is the band’s Mike Watt, all trucker cap and offhand knowledge about what it means if you dream about losing your teeth (“It symbolizes loss of control,” according to Smith, by way of Jung).

The other chief songwriter is rural gentleman-scholar Kevin Russell, he of the thousand quotable lyrics. Dig the poetry from the “Cripple Creek”-esque set opener “Moon Gone Down”: “Built me a boat on a rainy day/Waiting for my ship to sail/Held my thumb up to the moon/Look like I lost my fingernail.” The Austin, Texas, boys have a deep catalog to pull from, and they chose to pick a little from each of their eight full-lengths, adding up to more than 25 tunes when all was said and done. While they are still one of the most “country” of alt-country acts (Russell’s drawl has a lot to do with that), they can do plenty else: the a cappella southern-gospel of “God’s House”; the power-pop-informed “Gyroscope”; the swirling zydeco of “Cranky Mulatto,” a showcase for the accordion of utility player Claude Bernard and the fiddle of storied multi-instrumentalist Max “ex-Uncle Tupelo” Johnston.

Another thing that separates the Gourds from their peers is their disregard for the guitar solo (in contrast, critically worshipped alt-country group Drive-By Truckers are a veritable Skynyrd tribute band). This allows plenty of breathing room for Johnston and Russell’s reams of Celtic-infused mandolin and the tuba-like bass bottom of Smith’s Fender Precision. And room to ponder lyric gems like “Ladies Choice,” a longtime favorite of mine that describes in the slow motion of hindsight the narrator’s spill off his Schwinn bicycle, in love with a girl while his head is about to crack, his brain all afloat and anesthetized with the chemicals of love.

The Gourds win you over with their poetic gumption and natural need to rock, their beer-belly yowling, and their questions about toothache dreams.

Outer Limits

Flutterbox

MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass., Aug. 29

If you’re going to make up a word and use it as your band name, you damn well better be able to back it up. Flutterbox have done this, and more. The duo of singer Janine Nichols and bass guitarist Neill C. Furio originally coined the term as a moniker for the vintage effects-box Furio uses to create parallel and enhanced musical sounds; adopting it for their own name was an apt choice. The word itself is playful and layered in ways that mirror their unique and inviting songs: The first half of the compound word reflects movement, with birdlike darting, wings in motion; the second is solid and stationary, a defined space with one side enclosing a finite volume, the other standing as the edge of infinity.

This New York City-based pair have been together for only a couple years, and their appearance at MASS MoCA last Friday marked their area debut. Nichols and Furio were a study in visual contrasts, she looking like a silver-haired Annie Hall, he like a mod-shirted Jeff Beck. What Flutterbox have created straddles genres with the confidence of seasoned travelers. Furio’s songs, as sung by Nichols, create a breadth of character enriched by the strength of the two vantage points. It can come as a surprise that the words being sung were not her own, so completely did she inhabit them. The songs were poetic reveries on flight, dreams, love, hope, time, and wonder. Even elements of loss, longing and goodbyes were given a warm glow. Once you hear a song like “Whoops Wrong Daisy,” it’s hard to recall that you’ve had decades of life before it came on board.

Without a hint of grandstanding, Nichols gently let her idiosyncratic sense of time and space elevate everything she sang. Meanwhile, Furio brought the sensibilities of a guitarist to his bass playing, using a capo, fuzz and other effects to provide both a rhythmic foundation and melodic flourishes. The sheltered outdoor setting was ideal for the sonics being created on stage. Early on, crickets in the surrounding night became a part of the musical atmosphere. Later, sirens wailed down the road, their notes in the same key as the song being played—and Furio gave them room before returning to the verse at hand. Finally, rain began to fall, bouncing off the paved surfaces and percussing on the fabric coverings overhead.

Fluttterbox’s first CD is just out, and there’s an electricity in hearing something this good near its beginnings. The duo’s between-song patter hasn’t found a natural ease yet, but more time on the road will bring that into focus as well. Such a sympathetically matched pair is hard to find.

—David Greenberger


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