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Sonic youths: Amazing Plaid at Valentine’s.Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen.

Big Noise
By Shawn Stone

Amazing Plaid, Struction, the Wasted, the Highsocks
Valentine’s, Sept. 28

It was the big coming-out party for Amazing Plaid’s new CD Saturday night. The local sextet, known for their adventurous instrumentation and jaundiced songwriting, were definitely jazzed by the thrill of it all. It was a festive atmosphere.

Opening with “We Have Been Watching You the Whole Time,” singer-guitarist Tom Wilk positively spit the sarcasm-drenched lyrics. He was a man possessed by the god of noise. This not to slight the vocal snarl of cosinger Heather Williams, either—she can, and did, snarl with the best of them, punctuating her plentiful attitude with an ever-present cigarette. Songs like “Monsters,” “Kleen Machine,” and “Numbers Are for the Numb” hit hard, but in unexpected ways: catchy hooks surfacing intermittently through a sea of noise, sound samples phasing in and out with surprising subtlety, vocals suddenly turning oddly quiet, then roaring back to full volume. The audience was kept off balance, in a good way.

In fact, the textures were what made Amazing Plaid so much fun to listen to. This is a noise band with a cello player—Danielle Parra—who not only isn’t lost in the electric attack, but is a key sonic element. The midtempo stuff, with jangling guitars and Ryan Gurnett’s varied percussion instrumentation, managed to suggest both late-period Joy Division and early-’90s Sonic Youth. In other words, they were quite effective.

Though but a wee trio, Struction brought the sound and the fury. Tunes like “Surgical Instrument” felt like blunt instruments—complex time signatures played impossibly loud and fast, overlaid with straightforward harmonies, were as lethal as any cop’s blackjack.

The trajectory of the Wasted’s set was fascinating. Beginning with the cutting-but-playful “Dollar Tree” and “Ass End of the Earth,” their straightforward, almost friendly-sounding punk gave way to something more edgy and discomforting. The music became progressively weirder; Steve Gaylord’s vocals grew angrier. (When Gaylord sang “I Can’t Get High No More,” anger and sarcasm were combined in a hoarse, pain-filled shout.) By the time they finished, the trio were creating something dissonant and fearsome—with a feeling of despair reinforced by the unexplained empty microphone at the center of the stage.

The Highsocks kicked off the big shindig with original songs played with classic hard-rock panache. (Reference info: They also covered “Baba O’Riley.”) Every band had a solid group of supporters, and these fellas’ posse was as vocal as any. The crowd couldn’t outscream singers Mike Conti or Marc Tambini, however—if Jed Clampett had been at the show, he likely would have exclaimed, “Ooo doggies, them boys sure like ta’ holler!” Which is as nice a compliment as a band can get.

Beautifully Mismatched

Of Montreal
Valentine’s, Sept. 23

Of Montreal’s moniker seems pasted together with some sort of oblique glee. Over the course of their releases during the past five years, these non- Canadians have made the name quite apt, insofar as the songs of Kevin Barnes and the band’s approach to them are similarly free-ranging in their mix-and-match sensibilities.

Touring in support of their new Aldhils Arboretum disc, the quintet landed at Valentine’s last Monday. Where the earlier albums were studio creations that didn’t lend themselves easily to live performance, the latest is tailor-made for road work. The songs are still quite specific in their arrangements, with instrumental passages that eschew the constancy of a groove in favor of the theatricality of art songs. Bass player Derek Almstead played loping upper-register melodic lines while drummer Jamey Huggins filled in the bottom with tympani-like accents on his floor toms. Keyboardist Dottie Alexander added assorted flourishes on triangle and clarinet, while guitarist Andy Gonzales shifted between fuzzed underpinnings and rhythmic power.

At the center of all of this (though positioned outside of any direct spotlighting) was Barnes, looking like a cross between an English dandy and a Haight-Ashbury thrift-store fop. He led the band through most of the new album, turning the recorded songs from delightful cupcakes into furious cupcakes. His songs mix the romantic and slightly world-weary realities of the adult world with childlike enthusiasm. Live, there was an added wallop as these five curiously mismatched individuals worked together harmoniously on one stage, creating one brightly woven whole.

It’s altogether fitting that the cheerful sonics pouring forth from Of Montreal were presented at the family-friendly time of 10 PM. With their set over by 11, this middle-aged scribe was able to drive the hour north to get back home before the clock struck midnight. Hats off to Valentine’s for breaking free from 1 AM set times for some of their non-weekend shows.

—David Greenberger

Labor of Love

Utah Phillips
Eighth Step Concerts, West Hall, RPI, Sept. 20

Would the congregation please turn its attention to the first hymn on the program: “Railroading on the Great Divide.” This is not printed in our hymnals because it’s woven into the fabric of our hearts. Rev. Phillips has taken pains to point out that it is a folksong, despite the fact that folksingers don’t sing it, and that folksingers don’t sing it because it is boring. But we are going to sing because we are folk and thus joint owners of the song.

And Rev. Phillips adjusts his harmonica rack and blows chords about as tuneful as a train whistle, strums his guitar and gives forth in his reticulated baritone voice. And we sing along not out of obligation, but because it’s actually fun to do so, fun to savor simple lyrics that evoke a sense of freedom hard to achieve these mechanized days. We sing along also because we need this sense of community, need it more than ever in a country gone imperialistically insane.

Whether it’s the at-home spectacle of the city of Cohoes making a fool out of itself by once again mishandling its very lovely music hall, chasing out the Eighth Step series in a political putsch, or the international horror of the nutcase installed in a stolen presidency, pruritic finger poised above the Button, we’ve got plenty to depress us. Good thing Phillips still makes the occasional journey east to perform for us.

His is the Gospel of Collective Activity. Son of labor organizers, proud longtime Wobbly, Phillips hit the stage with a greeting (“I’m percolatin’!”) and a question: “Everybody got a job?” Pause for audience assent. “Suckers!”

Longtime Phillips fans heard little that was new during the performance, which spanned two generous sets, but that’s not the point. You don’t expect to hear new stuff in church, and that’s what RPI’s West Hall became.

As Phillips has pointed out elsewhere, the old union organizers borrowed tunes from old hymns because everybody knew them, and changed the words so they’d make more sense. Phillips layers his own sense of sensibility through a combo of song and story that’s dazzling to the ear and a delight to the mind.

“Railroading on the Great Divide,” for example, a favorite concert opener, was laced with several tales that wandered through labyrinths of gleeful wordplay, always finishing up with a huge audience laugh: tales of hoboes and philosophers (usually the same people) and opportunists and crazies, celebrating those who have beaten or successfully ignored the system.

But an important message filtered through the entertainment, as the stories eased into celebrations of those who have taken on and changed the system: Mother Jones, for example, “the most dangerous woman in America,” as Theodore Roosevelt dubbed her, and her successful attempts to enact child labor laws.

And there was advice on becoming a pacifist, which involves laying down not only weapons of war but also “weapons of privilege.” “That’ll give you something to chew on,” said Phillips, launching next into Woody Guthrie’s “I’ve Got to Know.”

The service finished, as usual, with “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” tall-tale-laden as always, but it brought the crowd to its feet with as much of a roar of approval as 400 graying folkies tend to muster. And we were left with the satisfying sense that when the nonsense of living grows too oppressive to ignore, we can work together to change it.

—B.A.Nilsson


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