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We Are Family
By Ann Morrow

Iron Lung Corp, Acumen Nation
Northern Lights, Oct. 26

From the first evil piano plink of the sample that opened “Monster Zero,” a buzz of anticipation went through the crowd like an electric current. Onstage were Acumen Nation, among the most intelligent, accomplished and original industrial bands still plying their trade without conceding a single note to the new-metal movement. The Chicago band had in tow their first new release in five years, The 5ifth Column, one the year’s best in any genre. But instantly accessible it’s not: Acumen’s incisive lyrics and synth-heavy, machine-tooled melodies require sustained attention, and at Northern Lights on Saturday, the club was quickly divided between those who were eager to hear the band’s new material, and those who came out for openers F-Timmi and/or the Halloween costume contest, and mostly didn’t stick around. It’s also likely that some audience members were driven out by the painfully loud (even to rivetheads) volume.

Acumen’s digital ingenuity couldn’t be reproduced under the best of circumstances, but the band’s live assault—which smartly emphasized the songs’ aggro-punk underpinnings—didn’t stand a chance under the sound mix, which blurred the band’s many intricately working parts into a dull roar. Punctuated only by hammering drums and bludgeoning guitar riffs that bore little resemblance to the cataclysmic instrumentation on disc, the captivatingly dissonant “Knowing This . . . ” suffered the worst; not a single word from songwriter Jason Novak’s harrowingly aware scenario came through. Nor did much of his cynically impassioned vocals. What did explode through the speakers was a basic meat-grinder roar, only higher-pitched.

Even so, the set scored some major points, a snarling “Margasuck” among them. “Gun Lover,” a memento of the band’s 1996 area debut at QE2, sent the mosh pit into overdrive while several dozen die-hard fans went into rapture. And what Novak lost in the overamped rumble he made up for in gonzo personality, egging on his frenzied bandmates and interacting with the frontline assembly like a man recently released from the loony bin and loving every minute of it.

After a break, Acumen were back—as Iron Lung Corp, the difference being the addition of vocalist Dan Neet, last seen onstage more than a year ago with the late, lamented Clay People. Along with a change of clothes (vandalized oxford shirts with power ties), the Acu-men each assumed an alternate musical personality, becoming their own evil twins in order to spew sarcastic and irresistibly catchy screeds. Novak was, if possible, even more manic, while Neet (accessorized with goggles) took center stage. And then right stage, and left stage, as the power center shifted according to the chorus. Improbably enough, Novak’s rotorized raps and Neet’s volcanic croon went together like a piston and a rod.

The sound mix remained obnoxious (nothing good can come of celebrating Halloween a lunar week premature), but the more elemental Iron Lung tunes emerged somewhat intact. The insanely melodic “I’m a Superstar” gained from guest vocals by the Flying Bobbz’s Sarah Orloff, and the inflammatory “Piehole,” which takes bigoted name-calling right over the top of ridiculousness, proved to be an immediate audience favorite. Soon enough, the band had enough critical mass onstage to bypass the fuzzed-out circuitry. Wetwerks guitarist Brian McGarvey, an original Corp member, climbed aboard for renditions of “Pretty (Like a Porn Star)” and a customized Nitzer Ebb medley of “Murderous” and “Join in the Chant.” Another Clay person, Dan Dinsmore, materialized behind the drum kit while an incognito Mike Guzzardi took over on guitar as F-Timmi’s Mike Biggane joined Neet and Novak for a high-energy free-for-all that morphed into a monstrous version of Clay People’s “Awake.” By the set’s end, there was a true feeling of Halloween lunacy in the air.

What if God Is One of Us

Doc Watson
Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Oct. 26

In one blow, back in ’85, Doc Watson lost his son, best friend and musical ally when Merle Watson was killed in an accident on the family farm. But the stout man who led the 79-year-old, slightly bent Doc Watson to his seat Saturday night was Richard Watson, Merle’s son. “We’re informal,” intoned Doc, his shirt buttoned to his neck and wavy white hair in a neat part, as he and Richard muttered, tuned a bit and then launched into “Frankie & Johnny.” Informal perhaps, but as significant as the mountains. For soon enough, that unmistakable music began to rise out of Doc, who sat prim and straight in his seat with the unsettling rigidity of the blind, tipping slightly forward to pour himself into the mike.

Doc Watson is a paradox: He is down-to-earth, yet not of this world. Switching from flat-picking to finger-style, he dug around in his pants pockets for a thumb pick, complaining that he simply had too much stuff in there. “If you just be yourself [up here] it’s a whole lot easier,” he offered by way of explanation for his unassuming stage manner. His performance wouldn’t be any different if he and Richard were sitting around back home, he explained. But that portrait of rural domesticity was soon swiped aside by Doc’s playing, for even at this advanced age his talent is extraordinary. His picking was an effortless congress of notes (that often seemed to come from several guitars), while his voice, all husk and loam, seemed to spring directly from the rich earth itself. The Troy performance found him in fine throat, whether hunkered down in a stirring baritone, yodeling or gliding into sweet, easy falsettos.

For material, Watson drew upon a canon that he has called “traditional-plus” (traditional, plus whatever he feels like playing). This meant a gamut from gospel to blues to country to folk, with fare such as the Moody Blues tune “Nights in White Satin” thrown in. He leaned more toward blues when playing with his grandson; paired with longtime sideman Jack Lawrence, he offered deft displays of bluegrass picking. For periods during the evening, Watson seemed to recede into himself, becoming less chatty and more a stoical figure sitting bolt upright as if in a church pew, reaching deep within. And in these moments, the set really took flight, with Watson uttering quiet incantations to pull his partners’ solos to new heights (“Sometimes, I get the blues, Richard” or “That’s real pretty, play some more” or “Let’s me and you take one together”). At one point, after a particularly dynamic guitar exchange with Lawrence, Doc even seemed to please himself, beaming shyly, blushing like a kid and swatting at a tuft above his ear.

While the highlights are too numerous to mention, there were moments that had people shaking their heads in wonderment and lifting their eyes to the ancient music-hall rafters. These included the rousing fun of “Don’t Monkey ’Round My Widder” and the gospel standard “Stand by Me” (“When I’m growing old and feeble, stand by me,” sang the snowy-haired Watson with riveting sincerity). “Ten Miles to Deep Gap” featured some utterly knee-trembling picking, while the night’s coda brought all three guitarists together for sterling renditions of “Milk Cow Blues” and Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues.” And then, the spell over, Doc was once again a slightly bent man being led from the stage. But he had let us into his world for a while.

—Erik Hage

Some Boys Are Back in Town

Thin Lizzy, Bad Karma, China White
Northern Lights, Oct. 24

Anyone who has ever swooned to the magic of Dublin’s Thin Lizzy knows that Phil Lynott—the band’s creator, minstrel and most staunch critic—is quite dead. At first blush, the idea of any combination of remnants from that ’70s-’80s tight-trousered juggernaut touring under the same name in the new millennium sans the man seems preposterous, but simple mathematics provides a much-needed perspective for detractors: Hmmmm. A barroom full of good friends with whom I used to stumble deftly into keg fires while listening to “Bad Reputation.” A live Lizzy tribute with alumni Scott Gorham and John Sykes, actually performing “Bad Reputation” and other national anthems at insidious volumes. The sum? Grace, mercy and absolution, my friends, and without feathered earrings or charred PRO-Keds.

With longtime Sykes bassist Marco Mendoza in tow and Tommy “I dare you to name a national act I haven’t toured with” Aldridge whacking the skins, it was evident from the downbeat of the infamous “Jailbreak” that we were in for one helluva show. Despite being one of those bands who recorded more than 15 major-label releases of unbelievable music only to become known in the United States for a single anthem (“The Boys Are Back in Town”), these older, wiser survivors are just as powerful as any act of any age currently on tour. We took a wonderful, whimsical beating with standard Lizzy live fare like “Waiting for an Alibi,” “Don’t Believe a Word,” “Cold Sweat” and Bob Seger’s “Rosalie,” and never has the specter of Lynott been so present as during the distinctly Gaelic double-lead cadences of “Black Rose” and the battle hymn “Emerald.” The lion-maned Sykes took a position at center stage, smiling easy into the crowd, his fingers on the fretboard like some huge, poisonous spider excitedly weaving a webbed cocoon around its prey. For a guy who once had to trick Geffen into using his own vocal tracks on a project (Blue Murder, 1989), the man has a set of pipes. The native Brit put his heart and soul into delivering respectful vocal props, impersonating Lynott’s come-hither vamp rather imperfectly but ultra-sincerely.

Gorham shone brilliantly as well (no surprises there), particularly during the lucid “The Sun Goes Down,” and the intricate “Chinatown,” which I must say belongs in the pleasant-surprise category along with “Massacre” (!!!) and “Killer on the Loose.” Men of few words, the guys remain almost fictionally unyielding, tight and sublime, and are obviously having the time of their lives. It’s a touching ceremony dedicated to one of the finest songwriters that ever stumbled ’cross the globe.

Earlier, David Smith and his blues-based Bad Karma ripped through a quick set of decent original metal. Packing quite a punch for a trio, these guys are as big as bouncers, and it comes out in the music. Smith finally grew weary of recruiting singers and now handles the chores himself beneath a whirl of loudass guitars. Good choice, one he should have made long ago.

Longtime area thrashers China White kicked off the evening with an impressive batch of new material, and a few golden oldies from the band’s salad days. “Makin’ Metal” was a standard 45 on my playlist almost 16 years ago, when I auditioned for the drum throne and was let down by axman Henry McFerran—who gently explained that the homeless and jobless often make unreliable band members. Awesome to see Paulie, Hank and company back in action—you really can’t keep good men down.

—Bill Ketzer

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