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Tomboy trouble: Kittie at Northern Lights.
Photo by Martin Benjamin

Different for Girls
By Erin Sullivan

Northern Lights, April 6

When the heavy-metal girl group Kittie first started out in 1997, they were garage-band novices. They were edgy, they were angry—the kind of angry only 16- and 17-year-old girls can be—and they held great promise.

Kittie have clearly progressed past their neophyte stage, and I was nearly certain that their Saturday show at Northern Lights would prove to me that they’ve earned th

e fawning praise they’ve received from the media gods and to some degree, they did. But there was something about the show that made me think that Kittie, though really, really good, aren’t done evolving.

The band started their set with a mix of old and new tunes, including “No Name” a tune from their most recent album, Oracle. Morgan Lander’s painfully throaty death-metal vocals, guitarist Jeff Phillips’ agility and speed, and new bassist Jennifer Arroyo’s (formerly of Spine) dexterity help keep the song from becoming just another heavy-metal cliché. And of course, the drumming—drummer Mercedes Lander has definitely earned her stripes. And how could she not? When the band first started out, the 16-year-old had only been at it for about six months; she now has six years’ experience and exposure to the genre’s heavy hitters, acquired on Kittie’s tours with Slipknot, Pantera, Sevendust and Ozzfest. Every time she burst into a deafening and speedy drum intro or fill, she proved that she’s not just another girl drummer in an all-chick band: She’s talented, she’s forceful, she’s young, and I’ll bet she has a bright future ahead of her, Kittie or no Kittie.

The band didn’t really start to shine until the third song of the night, the moody, anthemic “What I’ve Always Wanted.” The song gives Lander a chance to prove that she can do more with that voice than roar—between croaking parentheticals, she reveals her true vocal range. Lander belts out the moody chorus of the song in a clear, melodious voice that could put anyone in that crooning, moody Lilith Fair crowd to shame. It’s a shame that Lander doesn’t do more with that voice. On most of the songs, she’s so intent on belting out death-metal screams that the lyrics are all but incomprehensible and, at times, distracting.

Interestingly, the song that really showcased the band’s talent was not one of their own: They did a killer cover of Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell,” which, for me was both the highlight and the low point of the night. The good part was that this was the song during which I thought, “Yeah, this is what I’ve been waiting to see.” Staccato guitar, adept percussion, tight bass and clear vocals (the raucous screams were appropriately timed and clear) gave the song a creepiness that even the original didn’t manage. This cover could have been a disaster—there’s nothing worse than a bad Pink Floyd cover—but it was really where the band revealed how tight and talented they really are.

But that’s what leads me to the one thing that really disappointed me about Kittie. Consistently, they prove that they can rock as hard as, but I wanted them to rock harder than. By the end of the show, I thought that in their attempt to prove their mettle, they ended up sounding disappointingly like the boy-metal bands they could probably surpass if they wanted to. Maybe Kittie are still in their awkward stage. They’re still pretty young, after all.

Days of Future Passed

Jefferson Starship Acoustic Explorer
The Van Dyck, April 14

Let’s establish something right off the bat: I was not—I repeat—was not a concept-album kind of kid. I never could understand why Roger Waters didn’t just cut class, and Neil Peart

’s faux-objectivist ramblings on 2112 almost convinced me that Joey Ramone was a brilliant lyricist.

So, what motivated me to go see a show promising to resurrect a sci-fi concept album almost as old as I am, performed by a shadow version of a band whose best days were behind them before I was off training wheels? I honestly couldn’t tell you. And what’s stranger still is that I kind of wish the evening had been, like, conceptier, or something.

I’d been led to believe that Paul Kantner and company were going to focus on the material from his 1970 solo debut Blows Against the Empire, which told the tale of a band of freaks hijacking a starship to escape Earth and create a perfect pastoral community among the stars. I guess I envisioned some beat-naturalist poet decrying governmental malfeasance and espousing a return to a more primal life, but with bitching special effects. It’s startling to realize you’ve become postmodern without noticing, but I think I was secretly pining for some anarchic pastiche of lowbrow genre fiction, virtual reality, rock & roll, and high art. But it was pretty much just a rock show. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In fairness, the 60-year-old Kantner did notify the crowd at the first of two sets that they were getting the “quiet, short, dinner set,” indicating that the late-night crowd would get the stranger stuff. And it’s also true that, for a quiet dinner set, it packed a wallop. A wallop due primarily to drummer Prairie Prince, whose was work was both forceful and varied, and guitarist Slick Aguilar, who’s soloing at times evoked the round sustain of Carlos Santana and at times the gritty, rhythmic squeal of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Chris Smith’s keys added tasteful texture, and vocalist Diane Mangano’s voice was sure and pretty—almost too pretty. In fact, when covering lines originally sung by Grace Slick, Mangano revealed part of what was missing from the performance.

Mangano’s voice didn’t lack for power or finesse, it lacked for obsessive stridency, for articulate frenzy, for drug-addled and delusional certainty—it lacked for weirdness, as the set lacked for weirdness. There were glimmers, to be sure (Kantner’s no slouch in the stridency department, after all), but there had been the implied promise of a sustained anti-corporate-government rant, with a dramatic through line and everything. For some reason, I’ve been in the mood for that lately. Sure, “Wooden Ships,” sounded fine; Mangano spit the “doesn’t mean shit to a tree” from “Eskimo Blue Day” with appropriate, though unvarying, venom each time; and the set-closing medley of songs from Blows, which Kantner said was “about 35 songs in one,” very nearly worked to a crescendo worthy of the word “paranoid.” But somehow, for me, the whole thing just never quite got off the ground, and the set seemed more a faded snapshot than a vision.

—John Rodat

Coming Down the Mountain

Chris Blackwell, Tin Can Telephone, Cableknit Cowboy
Valentine’s, April 12

“I like a band that looks like it came down out of the mountains to play for you,” quipped a friend of mine at Valentine’s on Friday night, as we watched local musician Chris Blac

kwell lead his four-piece backing band through a set of hillbilly country and back-of-the-bar boogie. Partly my friend was joking about the band’s scruffy appearance and their endearing lack of self-conscious showmanship. Other than the spirited Blackwell—who yelped, applauded after his own songs and even shouted a pleading “C’mon!” to get the crowd’s attention—the rest of the band zoned out in their own musical worlds, paying little attention to the audience.

But also underlying my friend’s telling statement, I think, was an appreciation of the fact that Blackwell and his band exuded an authenticity that you can’t buy among the vintage western-wear shirts at a thrift store. With a distinctive, appealing warble—he’s a more nasally Jeff Tweedy or a less languid Will Oldham, perhaps—and a sort of hick charm, Blackwell is a genuine talent. For us, that discovery was all the more surprising because the local singer-songwriter is largely unheard of around here (at least outside the circle of his own friends, who seemed to make up much of the audience).

A little bit Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a little bit Workingman’s Dead, the show’s vibe veered from reverent honky-tonk to organic bluegrass boogie. In addition to some of Blackwell’s first-rate originals, the band turned in high-spirited renditions of Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” and Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.”

In comparison to the deep country-rock roots of the headlining band, openers Tin Can Telephone and Cableknit Cowboy seemed more informed by indie rock of the past decade. With dynamic shifts in tempo, muted vocals and occasional bursts of discordance, Tin Can Telephone—who were at their best on the hard-rocking “Parallel Lines”—sounded like an amalgam of ’90s-era indie rock, from Polvo to Superchunk and a host of other lesser bands (whose names escape me now since their CDs got traded in a few years ago). More cableknit than cowboy, the youngish Cableknit Cowboy, led by their seated singer-guitarist, were similarly reminiscent of modern indie rock. In their case, however, a warbled melancholy and downtrodden lassitude (à la Palace) were interrupted with some occasional outbursts of angsty emo shouting that seemed out of place in the otherwise low-key setting (either that or it’s hard to take a band seriously when their singer yells while sitting down).

—Kirsten Ferguson

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