youths: Amazing Plaid at Valentines.Photo
by Leif Zurmuhlen.
By Shawn Stone
Amazing Plaid, Struction, the Wasted, the Highsocks
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.