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Darlings of the Underground

By Kirsten Ferguson

Deerhunter, Tony Castles

Skidmore College, Feb. 7

Indie-rock band Deerhunter, who played in the small gym at Skidmore College’s Sports and Recreation Center on Saturday night, are among a handful of bands from Atlanta currently held in high regard in the indie-rock realm. Like their friends in cheeky garage-punk outfit the Black Lips, and the riotous garage-soul revue King Khan and the Shrines (who have since moved to Germany), Deerhunter share the wit and general spirit of irreverence that make their Atlanta compatriots such a good time.

In sound, however, Deerhunter are quite a bit different. Their self-described “ambient punk” draws more from the indie rockers of the late 1980s and early 1990s—shoe-gazing Brits like My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain who masked their melodies behind walls of guitar, and American counterparts like Sonic Youth who married noisy guitar discursions to accessible melodies. Fittingly, Deerhunter’s Skidmore set—played to a handful of locals and several hundred college kids, most of whom were being born around the time that shoe-gaze rock hit its zenith—started with a wordless guitar squall that morphed into a dreamy drone.

The song that followed, “Never Stops,” a fuzzed-out pop gem from Deerhunter’s Microcastle album, which landed on lots of top-10 lists last year, got the crowd moving. “Spring Hall Convert,” a “slow old song” from Deerhunter’s second album, Cryptograms, was a piece of wistful and haunting psychedelia, written by frontman Bradford Cox about his lengthy stay in a children’s hospital as a teen following heart surgery (the gaunt singer-songwriter suffers from Marfan syndrome). “Saved by Old Times,” with stream-of-consciousness lyrics referencing Victorian vampires, had an otherworldly feel, and “Nothing Ever Happened”—the second most radio-friendly pop tune from Microcastle after “Never Stops”—got the crowd dancing again.

“Are you enjoying college?” Cox asked. “You better study hard—we’re in a credit crunch.” It wasn’t a taunt; more of a genuine piece of advice. Despite a reputation for “confrontational” antics and wearing sundresses onstage, Cox—dressed in a nonconfrontational flannel shirt and tasseled ski hat—was subdued, sweet and solicitous throughout, whether querying the crowd about the quality of the sound, shaking hands after the set or dedicating a song to a guy in admiration of his Psychedelic Furs T-shirt. (“I don’t really relate, at this point, to what I was doing just months ago,” Cox recently told an interviewer. “I see pictures of me in dresses, with like fake blood and stuff, and think, ‘Man, what was I thinking?’ ”)

“They reminded me of XTC—early XTC,” Cox said of Tony Castles, a trio of recent Skidmore graduates now based in Brooklyn. Rocking a cool-geek look (bandana-headband, nerdy glasses, button-up shirt) and a Geddy Lee falsetto, the band’s baby-faced singer bounced through an enjoyable opening set—call it a collision of ’90s guitar-rock experimentation with danceable ’80s art-rock-spazz.

Chrissie Hynde is back: the Pretenders at the Palace.

Photo: Julia Zave

Back With a Bang

The Pretenders, American Bang

Palace Theatre, Jan. 29

When the Pretenders hit the Palace stage last Thursday night for the kickoff of their Break Up the Concrete Tour, the audience’s joy at how vital and alive the band still sounded was palpable. We jaded veterans of VH1 reunion shows are not used to 30-year-old bands being anything more than nostalgia acts. But new songs “Boots of Chinese Plastic” and “Don’t Cut Your Hair” cast Chrissie Hynde as a Dylan for the punk generation, Hynde still alluring in tight jeans and coffee-stained contralto, still casting aspersions on the travails of love (a precursor to the post-punk princess persona since inhabited by Kim Gordon and Liz Phair).

Great, we thought, but can they still rock the classics? Hynde and companions (who included new hotshot lead guitarist James Walbourne, alt-country vet Eric Heywood on pedal steel, and original drummer Martin Chambers) shut our mouths with definitive takes of “Talk of the Town,” a triumph of chordal sophistication, “Message of Love,” alternately grinding and gliding like some outtake from Axis: Bold As Love, and a shimmering “Back on the Chain Gang,” with Chambers chiming in on harmonies from behind his kit. (Chambers and Hynde fit together like hand in glove this fine evening, a subtle tribute to the fallen Pretenders in its own way.)

One reason the Pretenders songs haven’t aged a smidgen is that Hynde always remembers what we come to rock & roll for: hip-moving rhythm and tasty guitars. There’s always been a bit of the ’60s girl groups in her sound as well: Her cover of the Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing” sounded like a lost Shirelles tune, while “Don’t Get Me Wrong” is so shindig-ready that Bobby Darin might have made good use of it if he ever had the chance.

Beyond the sass and sex, the two main reasons Hynde is a card-carrying member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are her raft of classic songs, and her band, who, even through multiple permutations, have rocked with a grace rivaled by few others. This night was a brilliant celebration of that.

Openers American Bang, a young band out of Nashville playing old-school hard rock, are a successful blend of the MC5, Foghat and the best parts of ’80s hair metal. While a bit too reminiscent of the Kings of Leon at times, they succeeded at getting the crowd interested and primed for an evening of classic rock & roll.

—Mike Hotter

Frighteningly Good

Joshua Redman Double Trio

The Egg, Jan. 23

Before saxophonist Joshua Redman played a single note, he offered the crowd an odd warning. The room was full and the stage featured a peculiar symmetry with Redman standing directly in front of two upright bassists and between two full drum kits. His backing band (billed as two trios) joked around inaudibly during the monologue, and Redman’s disposition seemed as light and eager as that of most folks in the crowd, but what he said was this: “I hope we don’t scare you away.”

The joke received its desired response but also set a dangerous tenor that may not have been present in the odd band configuration itself. Redman’s career has proceeded on a very different trajectory than did his father’s. Dewey Redman was a dashiki-wearing free-jazz reed player, whose collaborations with Ornette Coleman would have rendered a double-trio configuration par for the course, but Joshua Redman’s rise from wunderkind to mainstream icon has largely avoided his father’s brand of experimentation. The disclaimer, then, issued before the fourth and final show of the band’s run, also functioned as a reminder of the rarity of this musical spectacle.

The opening section of “Identity Thief” featured an appropriate passing of motifs between each of the musicians onstage, effectively rendering the group a quintet as opposed to two trios. Bassist Larry Grenadier would synch up with Gregory Hutchinson, the drummer on the opposite side of the stage, for a few bars before passing duties to bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Brian Blade. As the head gave way to the first Redman tenor solo of the night, the script too, seemed to fall away. Whoever the secondary bassist was at the moment began to offer countermelodies in the upper register, while the drummer who wasn’t resigned to keeping the pulse began to punctuate alternate rhythms. After a while, there was so much activity happening behind Redman’s solo that dimensions of foreground and background blurred into a perfectly populist collaboration that diminished Redman’s star power ever so slightly and pasted grins across the faces of his backing band for the rest of the evening.

The bulk of the set, however, found the ensemble abbreviated into a rotation of trios, each built to feature each musician’s peculiar skills. “Hutch-hiker’s Guide” was an uptempo swing, written for Hutchinson to display his muscular chops. “Ghost” was a sleek James Bond-style theme, led by Redman’s soprano, but featuring Blade’s tremendous precision and prankster’s touch. “March” was an angular carnival romp, penned by Grenadier, and “The Insomnomaniac” featured Rogers’ deep, restrained blues.

The latter began with a protracted tenor intro, which might have been Redman’s finest playing. Through textbook arpeggios that tested both the range of his instrument and the capacity of his breath, he worked a simple opening idea into an athletic flight of fancy. At his most fraught and oblique, his tone remained crisp and youthful. But then, at the height of his solo, the bottom fell out of a note and was followed by a guttural growl. Rather than abandoning momentum though, Redman used the flub to stitch together a whole new theme of comically dexterous sour notes and primal grunts. As the band rose to join him, the Redman brand had been forensically verified.

To end the show, Redman brought the whole quintet back onstage. Through Gil Evans’ “Barracudas,” which had bandmates taking rowdy musical potshots at each other, and an encore of what may have been a Beethoven concerto, a sort of “last gig” good-time mentality came over the band and radiated out into the room.

Can’t say it was scary in the least.

—Josh Potter

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