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Who you callin’ hippie? My Morning Jacket at Pearl Street Nightclub. Photo by: Joe Putrock

Movin’ Right Along
By Ashley Hahn

My Morning Jacket, Dr. Dog
Pearl Street Nightclub, Northampton, Mass., Jan. 26

My first experience seeing My Morning Jacket was two years ago when they were touring on their second full-length album, At Dawn, and I was so thoroughly underwhelmed. Their set was an unbroken roar of psychedelic metal dueling with Southern rock, replete with Flying Vs and flowing tresses worthy of Valhallan rock gods. But the sheer oddity of the performance couldn’t overcome the fact that Jim James’ subtle melodies were lost amid the band’s wall of sludge. What sounded beautiful on the albums was rocked to an unrecognizable extent, and I expected a repeat performance on Monday night. How wrong I was.

When they opened with “Mahgeetah,” the leadoff track from their newest album, It Still Moves, it was obvious that My Morning Jacket have found balance. Live, they’re finally using the power packed by occasional punches instead of giving in to total sonic overload. At moments, the quietude of some songs was recaptured, while in others the band played like a wrecking ball.

James delivered note-perfect renditions of his songs from somewhere behind his trademark tresses with his voice drenched in ever-present reverb. The band tore through a rapturous set of material primarily from their last two albums, without a peep until 10 songs in, much to the delight of the crowd. No one—from the middle-aged man playing air piano to the indier-than-thous actually grooving along—seemed able to resist the charged performance.

As the story goes, James’ life was changed when his mom bought him Neil Young’s Harvest as a kid, so it’s no surprise that MMJ gravitate toward Crazy Horse-inspired jams. They made each song’s inevitable crescendo burst with ratcheted-up rock-outs that set songs like “Run Thru” ablaze in soaring explosions. And their intense, stormy rendition of “One Big Holiday” made me think of Kiss’ “Black Diamond” if Skynyrd had done it—all hair and pulsating power.

It’s also notable that MMJ are touring with two substitutes in their midst after their keyboardist and founding guitar player announced their retirement from the band last week. Their big shoes are formidably filled at the moment by touring guitarman Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster. Broemel in particular was far from shy, and shredded his solos, despite the fact that his hair was far too coiffed to truly fit in. When he finally took a breather, James swept his hair out of his face, graciously thanking not only the audience, but the substitute band members who, he said, “kicked their asses” coming to the tour with almost no practice. He added that he needed a Tetanus shot because his bare feet kept finding nails onstage, and he’d be happy to receive one at the merch table if there was a professional in the house.

James encored with three solo acoustic songs and brought the band back for a few more for the road, while the crowd lapped up every last note and roared for more. After more than 300 shows in the last year and a half, MMJ have discovered the golden mean that allows their songs to alternately breathe and wail.

The openers, Dr. Dog, were a bizarre circus act of guys who reminded me of an unholy union of Ween, Smoking Popes and any number of new-era jam bands. Their occasional squawking and dissonant digressions were hard on the ears, and their melodic and rhythmic antics tried my patience. A valiant effort, but they might take a cue from the road-seasoned veterans in MMJ, who have a show that would please even Goldilocks.

Live From a Parallel Universe

Gogol Bordello
Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, Mass., Jan. 24

It must have been pee-freezing cold Saturday night; I was going to confirm this on my way to Club Helsinki, but that sort of behavior is frowned upon these days in Great Barrington. This sort of cold usually keeps people home, although it’s been so cold for so long that the stir-crazy factor must have clicked in. Because Helsinki was packed to the gills for Gogol Bordello.

And the room was red-hot. From the first notes—a simple, unassuming bouncing bass line—the room began to throb, and once the group kicked in with a raw, Gypsy-inflected party beat, everything seemed to explode in a flash of sustained energy that lasted, unabated, for the next hour and a half.

Gogol Bordello are a self-described “Gypsy-punk” band, made up of Ukrainian and Romanian immigrants, along with a couple of ethnic-looking mutts of indeterminate pedigree. Accordion, fiddle, guitar, sax and drums. Leading the pack was the astonishing singer Eugene Hutz, tall, rail-thin, with a big, droopy Cossack mustache, go-to-hell hair and bank-robber eyes. Dressed (like the rest of the band) in ludicrous thrift-store clothes, Hutz was singing from the bar by the second song, body- surfing across the tiny club, and hopping from table to table like an escapee. When he wasn’t busy doing these things, he was atop the bass drum, holding a ceiling pipe for balance with one hand his mike in the other. Hutz has been compared everywhere to Iggy, but I’ll put him closer to the late Stiv Bator. He’s much more goofy that threatening—he’s the life of the freakin’ party. In any event, he’s the most galvanizing, physical and fun singer I’ve seen in a long, long time. In the cramped quarters of Helsinki, he was mesmerizing; I can’t imagine what he’d do if given more space.

Then there were the girl singer-dancers: two beauties, dressed like slinky Slovak clowns, with garish make-up and headscarves, chattering, screaming, mugging and dancing, where they could find the room, in synchronized, odd steps. At one point they came out, one with a marching bass drum around her neck, the other smashing crash cymbals—they joined Hutz on the bar, raising holy hell, and acting like they had just arrived, agitated, from some hypnotic parallel party universe. At one point the girls launched giant balls of newspaper into the crowd with oversized slingshots.

Through the chaos, the band played hepped-up Eastern European Gypsy music, often recalling klezmer and Weimar-era café jazz, with an occasional burst of metal guitar, furious ensemble runs, all with Zappa-like stop-start unpredictability. Songs were sung primarily in Ukrainian, but I could discern one English tune extolling the virtues of wearing purple. It was a situation of having to close your eyes to realize the tightness and genius of the band; with your eyes open the more primary concern was the Hieronymous Bosch-like situation unfolding in the room.

There was more than a little art-school conceit mixed in with the arch-foreignness of it all; this factor only added to the unpredictability and intrigue. They’ll be back to Helsinki, and soon. Get your table in the early afternoon, or you’re gonna miss it.

—Paul Rapp

Juke Joint Jumping

Wayne Hancock
The Ale House, Jan. 25

For what certain Troy clubs like the Ale House (and Artie Fredette’s former venue, Lansingburgh Station) may lack in space, they certainly make up for with enthusiastic crowds. It’s a refreshing change from the live-music apathy that can plague certain shows in Albany, where too-worthy performers often play in front of single-digit audiences. Texas honky-tonker Wayne Hancock, who has been called the “master of hillbilly swing,” should pack the clubs wherever he travels, and thankfully Troy did not disappoint. Despite the end-of-the-weekend booking and the frigid weather, Hancock’s show at the Ale House last Sunday was a standing-room-only event, with tables snagged long before the country singer-guitarist took the stage.

And when I say standing room, I don’t mean comfortable standing room. Images of the stage were broadcast on a black-and-white television monitor for the benefit of patrons by the bar, but catching a glimpse in person of the impish roots-rocker—who doesn’t exactly tower over the stage—required braving an ever-shifting mass of people who were perpetually trying to squeeze their way through impossibly tight spaces in order to get somewhere else. And, of course, the 6-foot-tall guy in the 10- gallon hat had to stand in the front row.

But who could complain about a little personal discomfort? Hancock, who has built a local audience in part by repeatedly touring through the area, clearly deserved the attention. Dressed in rolled-up jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, his slicked-back hair foiled by a cowlick, the 38-year-old Texan was backed by a lead guitarist and a stand-up bassist (he generally eschews drummers) on a selection of tunes from each of his four studio albums. The crowd knew his stuff too, calling out less-than-obvious requests, which Hancock readily obliged. “How do you think I lost my voice?” the hoarse singer cracked, flashing his gap-toothed grin, after a fan yelled out for his cover of jazz pianist Fats Waller’s “Viper,” which is a gleeful testament to the effects of reefer (“When your throat gets dry/You know you’re high”).

In a genre that values traditionalism over pop music’s love of everything new, Hancock has earned the ultimate compliment from scores of country fans and writers: an authenticity seal and the acknowledgement that he’s the “real deal.” Could be the hick Texas accent, the alcoholic past, the Marines stint that may have contributed to his subtly perceptible edge, the nasally twang often compared to Hank Senior, the seeming lack of concern for fame or money, or the itinerant childhood that has filled his songs with a longing for the road. Or, it could be that he writes songs classic enough to stand up to country music’s well-loved standards: his signature tune “Juke Joint Jumping,” which has practically defined his own genre; “Double A Daddy,” about a newly sober man happy to do the driving while his woman ties one on; and “Flat Land Boogie,” a fast-driving rave-up with a chorus of simple poetry: “Cotton fields and cattle ranches/Honky-tonks and all-night dances.”

—Kirsten Ferguson

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