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Marin Benjamin

The Ghost of Goth Rock Past
By John Rodat

David J, Mistle Thrush, the Bird Circuit
Valentine’s, march 29

We received our summons and were conducted to the dimly lit chamber by an effusive manservant. In the half gloom, dramatically backlit by flickering tapers, our host lounged—clad head-to-toe in white. In nervous sociability, we expressed our gratitude for his hospitality and inquired as to what brought him to this, his temporary lodgings. A thin arm extended and a hand thin as that of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come gestured toward the manservant. An index finger like a spike seemed to pin the lackey like a bug in an entomologist’s box: “He did.”

OK, not really. But that’s the way you’d expect to meet David J, isn’t it? In a setting described with adjectives like “sepulchral” and “crepuscular.” But there was no dimly lit chamber, just the back room at Valentine’s; no manservant, just a pleasant tour manager; no flickering tapers, just a string of cheap Christmas lights strung against the cinder-block wall. Though, truth be told, J did seem slightly accusatory when he told us that the booking was Richard the tour manager’s doing.

Which brings us to the question of the day: Where have all the goths gone?

One would expect that nostalgia for J’s old bands, Love and Rockets and the legendary Bauhaus, would provide a built-in, if modest, audience. But the gathering on Friday could have been a gathering on a Tuesday—modest would be an understatement. There were a half-dozen or so who were obviously there for J specifically, combat-booted and Kohl-eyed, but the rest of the crowd, decidedly un-goth, seemed to be there accidentally. And it’s probably just as well.

The moment he took the stage, J made clear that he had no intention of appeasing nostalgia. His first move was to hit the stop button on the boombox playing Love and Rockets’ “So Alive.” And from the first number, with its cello and cocktail-percussion accompaniment, J established himself as someone other than “that guy from Bauhaus”—which proved to be a bit of a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, the less-aggressive instrumentation allowed for the dark humor of J’s compositions to come through—on numbers like “Goth Girls in Southern California” and “Mickey Rourke Blues,” J achieved an Americana-informed, rollicking pub-rock that made me think of the Mekons. Unfortunately, the comparatively spare arrangements also brought to the fore J’s limited guitar playing, which after a while became numbing (he was Bauhaus’ bassist, remember). The subtler songs worked best when J laid down the guitar and let his appealingly reedy voice fill the midrange. “Mexican Drugstore,” for example, had the morbid melancholy of a less-Biblical Nick Cave. It would be interesting to hear J fully embrace the kind of Kurt Weill-style cabaret in which David Bowie has found such inspiration.

Had the goths shown up, openers Mistle Thrush would have sated their appetites for melodic melodrama and hummable decadence. Though the band cite classic-rock influences from Led Zeppelin to Pink Floyd, onstage they were all early-’80s mood-pop. Traces of Echo and the Bunnymen and Altered Images were there, but no one was represented so much as Siouxsie and the Banshees. “Peek-a-Boo” vocals, lotsa leather, digital delay and Burundi drumming—it was the complete package.

Odd men out on the bill, Rochester’s the Bird Circuit turned in an energetic, if ramshackle, set spanning a range from early-’90s college rock à la Bands Who Once Opened for the Replacements (Big Dipper, the Connells) to late-’90s-style, earnest adult alternative à la Counting Crows. Poetic lyrics about “autumn’s hymns and prayers” were matched with exuberant refrains of “bop-bop-ba,” and Superchunk guitar was strung with keyboard countermelodies. The band also deserve credit for soldiering on through slight technical (and tuning) troubles with real élan. That’s what rock & roll’s all about: playing through the pain.

A League of Their Own

Voices on the Verge
WAMC Performing Arts Studio, March 28

Voices on the Verge are a kind of indie-music supergroup. Beth Amsel, Erin McKeown, Jess Klein and Rose Polenzani each had their own viable solo careers before joining musical forces (and mailing lists) to create an entertaining live experience.

The presentation during the quartet’s performance at the new WAMC Performing Arts Studio last Thursday was democracy in action. The focus rotated from one performer to the next like clockwork, with the other three adding harmonies and changing instruments as necessary. They all played guitar, just for starters, but they contributed percussion and even clarinet as appropriate.

The contrast in their musical styles did, to some extent, make this seem like four solo acts on one stage. Amsel has a gorgeous voice, heaven-sent for the emotionally rich country and folk material she writes. McKeown, whose spare, pointed electric-guitar work added edge to the sound, was the angry young rocker in her tough-minded songs (“The Boy Next Door”) and sharp vocal style. Rochester native Jess Klein played the aforementioned clarinet (very well, too) and sang introspective, metaphorical songs (“The House You’re Living In”). Rose Polenzani seemed like the most reserved of the four, but the range of her subject matter, from political protest (“Omen”) to sexual celebration, made her really stand out.

Voices on the Verge did seem like a cohesive group, however, through the obvious joy they had in working together, and in their marvelous four part harmony.

The new WAMC Performing Arts Studio turned out to be a terrific venue to hear an act like Voices on the Verge. The stately former bank building on Central Avenue may have had nearly every trace of its previous incarnation architecturally obliterated, but the acoustical results of the interior reconstruction are impressive. (Well, they’re a radio station, and broadcast quality had to be uppermost in their plans. This particular show was recorded for future broadcast.) The bugs in presentation aren’t all worked out yet, however; it wasn’t necessarily a great place to see the group.

There were, after all, only four performers, but there still wasn’t enough room on the stage for all their instruments. The electric keys were set up down behind the stage, and whenever McKeown or Polenzani played them, they disappeared completely from view. Also, the stage was just high enough for everyone to have a reasonably unrestricted view. Except, of course, for Voices’ bit of set-closing choreography, in which they crouched down as the harmonies diminished.

The audience clearly loved the show and enjoyed the new auditorium. Many conveyed kudos to WAMC’s chairman, Alan Chartock, who lingered glumly at the back of the hall near the exit. The space is likely going to find a home as a small-to-midsized niche venue, partly because of the decent sound, but primarily because of WAMC’s handy ability to promote the shows on the radio to its loyal (and geographically sprawling) public-radio community. This is not to be underestimated. It is also an advantage neither the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall nor Valentine’s (to name just two arguable competitors) possesses.

—Shawn Stone


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