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Four on the floor: (l-r) Wynn, Pitmon, Buck, and McCaughey at Valentine’s.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Home Run

By Kirsten Ferguson

The Minus 5/ Steve Wynn IV/ The Baseball Project

Valentine’s, Sept. 21

 

Although announced as a triple bill featuring the Minus 5, the Baseball Project and the Steve Wynn IV, it was a nice surprise to find that the various members of those outfits—underground rock heavyweights Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate, Gutterball), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows) and Linda Pitmon (Zuzu’s Petals)—intended to play as just one band at Valentine’s on Monday night. That meant two hourlong sets (and a boisterous series of encores) with no real rhyme or reason to the madness—just a jumbled jukebox of songs pulled from the discographies of the foursome’s past and present groups.

Wynn, dressed in a red Western shirt, ripped into a few gems from his storied ’80s outfit the Dream Syndicate (“That’s What You Always Say,” “Tell Me When It’s Over”) and from his underappreciated solo career (“Manhattan Fault Line,” “Amphetamine”), smiling appreciatively as the modest-sized but dedicated crowd showered his songs with the most adulation of the night. McCaughey, sporting a Blues Brother-meets-gas-station-attendant look in black shades and scraggly gray beard, used his turn at the mic to showcase songs from his brand new Young Fresh Fellows album and from the 2009 Minus 5 release Killingsworth. Pitmon muscled the drums in extraordinarily hard-hitting fashion (“She doesn’t play like a girl,” an admiring fan noted after), while locking eyes with her rhythm partner Buck, a cool cucumber who towered center stage with a largely unimpressed look on his face.

A “big, wild variety show revue,” Wynn has called the 30-show U.S. tour, and overall, the combined effect of the four personas onstage was both unpredictable and joyful—the four truly were digging the mix of songs they played, with obvious mutual respect for each other’s tunes. The cohesion holding it all together were songs from the quartet’s Baseball Project, a musical collaboration dedicated to mythologizing baseball legends and stories of yore. The project came together at a party celebrating R.E.M.’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame several years ago, when McCaughey (a touring member of R.E.M.) and Wynn bonded over their mutual love for baseball, a sport that seems to hold more sway over indie rockers than any other.

“Welcome to Monday night baseball,” Wynn announced at Valentine’s as the foursome launched into a handful of tracks from Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, the Baseball Project’s first volume of baseball-themed tunes. “Gratitude (For Curt Flood)” was a great song about the Cardinals outfielder whose lawsuit led to free agency for baseball players, while “Harvey Haddix” recounted the sad tale of a Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw 12 perfect innings only to lose the game and his no-hitter in the 13th inning. Valentine’s also saw the debut of “Buckner’s Bolero,” from a forthcoming second volume, about the Boston Red Sox’s painful 1986 World Series loss at the shaky hands of first baseman Bill Buckner. “You might like it better than the people in Boston when we play in front of them tomorrow,” Wynn quipped.

During the set intermission, McCaughey, Wynn, Buck and Pitmon lingered at the merchandise table, gamely signing posters and CDs and chatting up the crowd (a good marketing move, but also evidence of their generally down-to-earth and friendly demeanors). In a cool bit of planned synchronicity during the second set, Wynn launched into the Dream Syndicate’s epic barnburner “Days of Wine and Roses” after McCaughey sang the Minus 5’s wistful ode to good times, “Days of Wine and Booze.” Then, as the night grew longer, the quartet morphed into a gleeful cover band, tackling the Flaming Groovies (“Teenage Head”), Neil Young (“Revolution Blues”) and the Sonics (“Strychnine”).

Mumblegrass

Railroad Earth

The Egg, Sept. 19

In the old-school bluegrass of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt and Scruggs, when you soloed, you more or less stuck to the melody of the song. The 1970s saw newgrass, sired by pickers like David Grisman and Tony Rice, which took the jazz approach of playing freely over the changes while, of course, the older players looked on and bemoaned the improvisational heresies. Now there’s jamgrass, the bluegrass-jamband hybrid, where you take bluegrass, add drums, and then periodically step outside the harmonic building for spacey interludes of Appalachian ragas over one or two-chord vamps. Railroad Earth, a capable acoustic sextet from New Jersey who performed a set of mostly originals for a woefully small crowd at the Egg on Saturday, are among the headmasters of this genre. Too bad that an otherwise fine show suffered from frequently unintelligible singing.

Railroad Earth are fronted by former From Good Homes songwriter Todd Sheaffer on guitar and lead vocals; the sidemen are Tim Carbone on fiddle, John Skehan on mandolin and bouzouki, Carey Harmon on drums, Johnny Grubb on upright bass, and Andy Goessling on acoustic guitars, banjo, mandolin, and saxophones. Although neither Carbone nor Skehan were slouches on their axes, Goessling stood out with his stylistic as well as instrumental versatility: He could play sassy swing lines on sax as well as full-tilt bluegrass on at least three fretted instruments.

They opened with a bounding Bill Monroe instrumental, “Old Dangerfield,” and you could see why they’ve been playing top bluegrass festivals—their picking was spot-on. Next was their “Dandelion Wine,” sung by Sheaffer. His tenor vocals were quite nasal, but clothespin-on-the-nose singing is after all an old bluegrass tradition. Throughout the set, however, only occasional lines of Sheaffer’s mumbled lyrics could be made out, and I doubt anyone hearing Railroad Earth for the first time knew what many of the songs were about.

Still, their fluid, energetic playing was a pleasure to hear. “The Forecast” and “Stillwater Getaway” had roomy space sections, and “Birds of America” was an affably goofy tribute to ornithology. They ended with a peppy old-time fiddle breakdown, “Little Rabbit.”

Opening the show were Elephant Revival, a Colorado-based acoustic quintet whose music tended toward the vacuous and whose laconic chops, with the notable exception of fiddler Bridget Law, failed to excite. The jewel of the band, though, was the lovely alto Bonnie Paine, who, when she got her all too few turns at the mic, proved to be the best singer of the night. Elephant Revival ought to give her the lion’s share of the vocals and let her shine as the leader of the pachyderms.

—Glenn Weiser

The Road Less Traveled

Son Volt

The Egg, Sept. 18

For the last 15 years, alt-country pioneer and Son Volt leader Jay Farrar has proved to be the quintessential roots-rock classicist, forever fine-tuning a rock-country hybrid equal parts Neil Young, Woody Guthrie and Flying Burrito Brothers. Upon this sturdily built structure, Farrar declaims the emptiness of modern American life in an inimitable, barrel-chested baritone that is surely one of the most stirring of rock & roll singing voices. That voice is the main reason to see Farrar in concert, to marvel at how that sound comes out of this sullen Midwesterner with the tousled hair and spindly legs. But Son Volt are also about loud guitars, and new hire James Walbourne (recently of the Pretenders) frequently went over the top, shaking things up with frenetic fretwork that managed to spark some life into a surprisingly sedate audience at the Egg’s Hart Theater last Friday night. Most of the audience seemed to have attended more out of curiosity than a passion to support Farrar, to see how this guy measures up against Jeff Tweedy. Rock & roll is of course a form of secular religion, and we all want to know who we believe the most.

They stuck mainly to newer songs, opening with 2007’s “The Picture,” a little anemic without the horns that dominate on record, but stirring just the same. As they rolled through tunes with nary a word of welcome in between, things didn’t really spark until the new country ballad “Dust of Daylight,” a showcase for pedal-steel master Mark Spencer to paint a picture of yearning while Farrar intoned, “Love is a fog/And you stumble every step you make.” As a fan of Son Volt phase one (the band had a totally different lineup for their three ’90s albums), I was a bit on edge until they paid a visit to Trace’s “Ten Second News,” a classic creeper that equates modern living with slow poisoning (mental and otherwise) from billboards and chemicals.

Songs seemed to be grouped into themes: Here, we have three songs that mention diesel, gasoline and ethanol; there, we have a few more referencing eternity and a new century that was broken before it even started. Farrar fans have long faced the problem of melodies and chord progressions that have become too well-traveled, performed with a similar cadence that makes it hard to parse the poetry from the catch phrases. Which means it felt more like a lecture than a good time, at least until about three-quarters of the way through the concert, when Farrar and company decided it was time to rock out a bit. “Medication” became a raga-rock rave-up that found Farrar trading licks with Walbourne, while “Damn Shame,” from Farrar’s 2001 solo album Sebastopol, is probably the most fun Farrar will ever allow himself to have.

It wasn’t until Son Volt returned for their encore, covering Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” and the old trucker anthem “Looking at the World Through a Windshield,” that Farrar finally cracked a smile. Like a true roots aficionado, he’s more at ease paying homage than having the spotlight shine on himself.

—Mike Hotter

You Can All Join In

Akron/Family, Slaraffenland

Jason’s Upstairs Bar, Sept. 14

Ever since the band released Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free earlier this year, Brooklyn freak-folk/psych-rock trio Akron/Family have taken to performing beneath the image they used as their album art: a ragged American flag with a fractal tie-dye swirl in place of the stars. While succinctly representing the Woody Guthrie-meets-Abbie Hoffman ethos the band has always drawn from, it also offers a curious visual counterpoint to the scene that invariably unfolds in the crowd throughout an Ak/Fam show. On a Monday night in normally sleepy Hudson, following the band’s weekend set at the indie circus All Tomorrow’s Parties, a devoted cadre of fans roiled in a moshy glee that would have, anywhere else, spurned hippie iconography, but here followed its anarchic charge.

Ever since the band lost their fourth member, the trio have flourished in their trimmer configuration, releasing two of their strongest albums, and required, more than ever, help from the extended family. Building from a haze of feedback, guitarist Seth Olinsky opened the set with the pacifistic ode “Meek Warrior,” and, in a manner that owes to all those hippie bands united under the swirl, seamlessly segued into “River,” a vehicle for bassist Miles Seaton. While adept at generating a sound that belies their small numbers, the band seem most comfortable with a stage full of bodies. On previous tours, they’ve enlisted the support of kindred bands like Megafaun to provide horns and auxiliary percussion. For this tour it’s been Slaraffenland, a Danish band whose opening set proved a strange European hybrid of Dr. Dog, Man Man, and Ak/Fam. As the opening strains of “Gravelly Mountains of the Moon” began, Slaraffenland filed in with flute, clarinet, trombone, saxophone and percussion, in time for the song’s eventual punk-rock drop-kick.

From this point on, the room was divided between the few dozen up front who’d surrendered to the sweaty abandon and those by the bar who’d yet to be converted. Taking full advantage of the extended lineup and mounting energy, the band stretched songs out into simmering codas that promised to lead in any direction. The set’s most exciting moment came when members of the audience began the “ooh, hey hey hey” chant that precedes the noisy “Ed Is a Portal,” pushing the band into the song’s full rendition. It’s this sort of trust and reciprocity with their audience that makes Ak/Fam such a rare breed in a pop music world that often rewards image and posture over the raw experience of musicmaking and sharing.

A similar moment came at the show’s end, when the band came to the front of the stage for an a cappella version of “Last Year,” a hopeful meditation on regaining agency over one’s future. If the “/Family” side of the band’s moniker was ever unclear, it wasn’t here, as audience voices merged with those onstage in a ragged harmony that seems to be the point of all that Akron/Family aim for.

—Josh Potter

Yes Wave

Boredoms

EMPAC, Sept. 11

Since its opening last fall, RPI’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center has, for most, remained an enigma on the Troy hillside. When universities dump a wad of cash into a world-class piece of architecture, it usually houses an academic function that the layperson can comprehend, from researching nanotechnology to serving food. The notion that the glass-enclosed building was merely a “performance venue” didn’t quite jibe with its perceived capabilities. What the space had been missing was the perfect act to illustrate its function and set the record straight. On Friday night, the space received just that, as the legendary Japanese noise-rock-band-turned-shamanic-tribe the Boredoms demonstrated the truth in all those speculative analogies.

Since their inception as no-wave tricksters in the late ’80s, the Boredoms have made their way by dismantling preconceived notions of how music ought to operate. Around the millennium, though, a new brand of trance-inducing rhythmic music emerged from their antagonistic noise, culminating these past three years in an annual ceremony the band call Boadrum. The revelation seemed to be that when you strip away the last convention of musicmaking, you’re left with raw sensation and the ritual of performance, both powerfully generative tools. On 7/7/07, the band performed with 77 drummers and employed the same numerology the following year. On the 9th of this month, the band moved to a modest 9-drummer arrangement, which they re- created in Troy two nights later.

Frontman Yamantaka Eye led his ensemble, cloaked in matching hoodies, onto the venue’s specially constructed round stage, and the seven additional drummers (representing acclaimed spazz-rock bands like Hella, Ponytail, and Volcano the Bear) sat around Boredoms drummers Yoshimi P-We and Yojiro Tatekawa. Eye presided before them, his iconic dreadlocks tucked into a train conductor’s hat that seemed to suggest his role in what was about to unfold. With a pair of drumsticks, Eye struck the introductory notes on a prepared seven-neck (!) guitar, displayed like an enormous hammered-dulcimer behind him. As P-We raised her sticks, the other drummers followed, performing her every motion in a concentrated unison that seemed to have the whole ensemble breathing in sync. If the band’s orientation were not so unabashedly ecstatic, the thunderous effect of the sticks crashing down would have been martial and intimidating. But as the pulse quickened and Eye let out an elemental cry, a wave of sound swept the room that turned immediately to visceral experience under the room’s acoustics and caused the occasional soul to rise from their seat, writhing in pentecostal abandon.

When the beat reached cruising velocity, Tatekawa emerged from a rear door, carried, drum set and all, atop a human-held platform. Now, with the full ensemble, Eye began introducing harmonic elements on an array of synthesizers and by striking his guitars with a long pole. Over a pulse that owed simultaneously to punk rock, ambient minimalism, and ethnic tribalism, he introduced squalling vocal themes that cycled in an incantory echolalia, entrancing because of their repetition and void of symbolic meaning (it was all Japanese anyway). For the few who exited mid-show, it was no doubt due to a perceived monotony/abrasiveness (if something can be both) that instead provided an endorphin rush to others, not the least of whom was Eye, who often ventured to the front of the stage in a flailing dance that was equal parts caveman, spaceman and superman.

Eye commanded the volume and intensity of his ensemble (and thereby the performance space) with hand gestures, eventually signaling that a motif be passed around the ensemble from one drummer to the next. Only once did the sweat-drenched performers break their conformity, for a piece of the composition that utilized a frayed free time signature. After a few huge swells, the show culminated in a deep sludgy beat that found fourth member Muneomi Senju on a heavily distorted guitar. Only upon leaving the hall could the show’s lasting effect could be felt in one’s ringing ears. Having used the space in the way physicists might a particle accelerator, the Boredoms proved that, analogies aside, EMPAC is a sensory saturation chamber capable of leaving audiences blissfully altered.

—Josh Potter


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