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It's not easy being green: Cobra Verde at Valentine’s. Photo by Joe Putrock.

Rough Boys
By Kirsten Ferguson

Cobra Verde and J Mascis
Valentine’s, May 20

Outward expressions of nihilism in rock music—from Johnny Rotten spewing bile to Kurt Cobain smashing guitars—may be verging on cliché these days, but nihilism-turned-inward is still relatively fresh. Nobody drags his own ego through the gutter—at least in song—better than singer John Petkovic, who fronts the guitar-heavy Cleveland rock band Cobra Verde. During their headlining show at Valentine’s last Tuesday, Petkovic and his bandmates turned their second song, “My Name Is Nobody,” into an unstoppable sing-along anthem of self-negation. “Modified Frankenstein,” which came later in the set, was another arena-worthy rocker with train-wreck guitars, contagious choruses and self-hating lyrics: “Frankenstein ain’t got nothing on me/I’m a product of product and surgery.”

Both songs were from the band’s new disc, Easy Listening. The album, released by MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer on his MuscleTone label, is Cobra Verde’s third full-length slab of hip-shaking, art-damaged rock. Through the churning guitars and lyrical misanthropy, the songs never fail to be highly infectious, and many are calling Easy Listening the band’s best recording yet. At Valentine’s, guitarist J Mascis joined Cobra Verde onstage as the band unveiled their new songs, though the former Dinosaur Jr. frontman kept a relatively low profile. With unkempt gray hair and saucer-sized glasses, Mascis looked like somebody you might dodge at a rest stop, but his guitar blasts added to the show’s blistering din (my ears were ringing after the first song).

Mascis sat behind the drums on “Every God for Himself,” Petkovic’s cynical condemnation of bad actors and bad cinema. Mascis may have banged the kit like a guitarist (all wrists), but the song lost none of its bite. “No story is a true story, including this one,” Petkovic declared midsong. Spoken like a journalist himself. The highly literate Petkovic, who dissects film, music and culture for the daily Cleveland Plain Dealer and his own online magazine called ScamCity: A Journal of American Anti-Culture and a Guide to Millennial Panic, is the rare musician who writes in print as well as he performs on stage.

“Tonight’s a little bit rough, so I apologize in advance,” Petkovic announced during the show, which marked the opening night of the band’s mini-tour with Mascis playing guitar (they also toured briefly with him last fall). As he spastically flopped about the stage, clapped his hands and shook a tambourine, Petkovic then led the band through the gothic cabaret of “To Your Pretty Face,” a song whose unhinged lyrics would sound cartoonish in any other singer’s hands (“Champagne kisses and crack-pipe suicide drones/Lipstick vampire sucking blood from bone”). The band offered up a sleaze-rock version of the Undertones’ classic “Teenage Kicks,” before Mascis’ wailing guitar lit up an encore of songs by the Stooges.

Making Daddy Proud

Rosanne Cash
MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass., May 25

Rosanne Cash’s new Rules of Travel brings to an end the longest gap between recordings since her career started in the late ’70s. Her previous release, Ten Song Demo, was seven years prior. Last Sunday’s show in North Adams found her and a five-piece band rightfully focusing on this nicely jeweled album. The songs, whether new or old, flowed with a consistency and commitment owing to the strength of the compositions and the subtle verve of the band. Cash’s voice has a simple dramatic presence that made even unfamiliar material sound like an old friend. MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center auditorium is a difficult room in which to maintain control over the band’s full dynamic range (polite way of saying: occasionally muddy sound), but for the most part it was fine.

As it was still a mere 10 days since the death of her stepmother, June Carter Cash, Rosanne acknowledged her passing with a couple of revealing anecdotes and a solo performance of the Carter Family’s “Winding Stream” (with the beautiful line “Do not disturb my waking dream”). Falling at the set’s midpoint and followed by a couple other solo or duet numbers, it was the right scale and focus for the intimacy of such a loss.

The night was otherwise built around perfectly rendered band arrangements. Cash’s husband and producer, John Leventhal, leads the band and is the lead guitarist—a role that is informed by his full immersion in the material, from co-writing to production. Most of his lines served an orchestral purpose, embellishing melodies or offering complementary themes. Color was added by Teddy Thompson (son of Richard and Linda) on acoustic guitar and Brian Mitchell on keyboards, primarily with the always-welcome Hammond organ. Thompson also sang backup as well as a duet on “Three Steps Down” (reprising his part from the new album). Bass guitarist Conrad Korsch and drummer Ben Wittman served the dual purpose of anchoring everything as well as giving it a playful looseness.

Rosanne Cash doesn’t carry her father’s sound, but she carries more than his name. It’s a testament to Johnny Cash that his daughter found her own voice as an artist. The night’s final encore was an unexpected cover of Lerner & Lowe’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” (from My Fair Lady). The eloquence and passion of Cash’s singing made it clear that she’s the sum of a whole other set of parts than those that forged the vision of her father. That’s what artists are supposed to do, and what could make a parent more proud?

David Greenberger 

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