Ghost of Goth Rock Past
J, Mistle Thrush, the Bird Circuit
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
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
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.
League of Their Own
Voices on the Verge
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
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.