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Throwback to the ’90s: Grand Champeen at Valentine’s. Photo by: Leif Zurmuhlen

All Work and No Payoff
By Kirsten Ferguson

Grand Champeen, Empire State Troopers, the Let Downs
Valentine’s, June 18

Grand Champeen certainly aren’t the first band to memorialize their van in song, as they did on their debut album Out Front by the Van. The Minutemen’s Mike Watt has already taken van romanticism to its logical end. No musician will ever mythologize a Ford Econoline more poignantly than Watt, who has defined his whole life by the never-ending cycle of a DIY punk rock tour: Load the van, drive the van, unload the van. In some ways, Watt’s “jamming econo” may be about frugality and financial independence as much as anything. One night at Valentine’s several years ago, I caught an accidental glimpse of the spiral notebook he was using to make neat lists of tour expenditures. I was impressed. I’ve never balanced a checkbook as well in my life.

Although few rock bands have adhered so closely to Watt’s DIY purity, the diehard work ethic of ’80s bands like the Minutemen and Black Flag surely carried over into the indie rock heyday of the ’90s. There was a time in the ’90s when most new bands viewed driving across the country in a van—hitting every podunk town along the way—as a rock & roll version of earning stripes. These days, an East Coast tour schedule for your favorite indie rock band probably reads like this: Boston, NYC, Philadelphia. Yep, those of us in the B- and C-list cities are getting passed by. Maybe the romanticism of touring in beaten, smelly vans has finally worn off. Or maybe bands are just shrewder. There ain’t no major-label reps in Albany or Rochester.

Of course, there are exceptions, which is one of the reasons that Grand Champeen, who played at Valentine’s last Friday, seemed like such a throwback. They tour relentlessly (garnering a ton of rave reviews, by the way). They sing about their van. They wear the ’90s rock uniform: loose T-shirts, faded jeans with knee holes, flat-footed Converse All-Stars. They had all the blustery energy of their admitted influences—the Replacements, Uncle Tupelo and Soul Asylum—minus only some of the charisma. They blew through songs seamlessly, often without bothering to stop before starting the next. I can easily enjoy bands who work so hard.

Still, the smallish crowd in front of the stage seemed largely unimpressed. I wasn’t entirely sure why, but one thing about Grand Champeen was inexplicable to me. Fresh-faced, limber-kneed guitarist Channing Lewis, the primary songwriter, radiated much of the band’s sweaty enthusiasm and sang the night’s best songs (“Threw a Fit,” “Cottonmouth”). Still, he spent the night skulking to the side of the stage, while tall bassist Alex Livingstone, whose songs weren’t as memorable, loomed right in front. Lewis, you’re the obvious frontman and you’re not short on looks either, just take center stage, will ya? Perhaps that would have settled some of the crowd’s ambivalence. Or maybe it’s just too soon for a return to the hard-working earnestness of ’90s rock. There is a Republican in the White House, after all. Dark, sinister music is in.

As likely, Grand Champeen just had a hard time following Empire State Troopers. OK, I’ll lay it out: The locally based Empire State Troopers blew the headliners away. Grand Champeen nearly admitted as much. “They’re the best band I’ve seen on tour so far,” acknowledged Livingstone near the close of Grand Champeen’s set. “They were intense,” added Lewis. Intense was right. Lead singer Kelly, who has a more unassuming role as bassist in local crank-rock band the Wasted, is a kick-ass front woman. (She must have a last name, but I’ve always heard her referred to as “Kelly from the Wasted.”)

A five-piece with Buffalo connections, Empire State Troopers include Small Axe drummer Thom Hall on guitar and heavy-hitting Jason Kourkounius on drums. (I was told that Kourkounius has played with such underground rock luminaries as Mule, the Delta 72, Hot Snakes and Burning Brides.) They also had a bassist in Josh Homme sunglasses and a Turbonegro-T-shirt-clad guitarist who happens to be Kelly’s cousin. As the band churned out their heady blend of burned-out devil rock, Kelly—an arresting, animated singer with an in-your-face sort of charm—belted out tracks about devil-shooting and Adirondack white trash (“Jack Clutch”). Watch out: EST are easily the best new local band to form around here in ages.

“The guys are always crazy,” someone said as Saratoga Springs trio the Let Downs took the stage following Grand Champeen. Sure enough, as soon as they started, the Mohawked, shirtless, drunken dude who had been causing trouble all night had to be subdued. With a gruff-throated male drummer and a bassist-frontwoman who traded vocal lines (“I’m a walking disaster/I’m a stone cold bastard”), the Let Downs had a charmingly dysfunctional junky-punk vibe. You’ve got to love any singer who admits onstage, after being prodded by her guitarist to skip over a botched song, “I wrote this song but I don’t remember it. I’m on a lot of medication.”

He’s a Good Ole Boy

Dale Watson
The Ale House, June 20

It’s that true Bakersfield sound—a dirty little Telecaster choogle, a voice that’s lived it and a honky-tonk band rolling along, deep in the pocket. It’s the kind of music that calls to mind trucks, truck stops and the open road. The progenitors of the sound are Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, but there’s one guy truly carrying the torch in the new millennium: Austin’s Dale Watson. And if you are wondering if there is still a crowd out there for hard-core, traditional country music, Sunday night’s packed-to-the-gills crowd at the Ale House was a succinct answer. The fact that it was Sunday and Father’s Day (and that Clinton was on 60 Minutes), are enough to give a club owner anxiety. But Ale House kingpin Brian Gilchrist needn’t have worried. Long before Watson hit the stage, it was already impossible to even enter the packed back room.

The Lustre Kings opened with their usual sterling set (and props to head King Mark Gamsjager for bringing this event to town), and then Watson and his band strolled through the barroom like gunslingers, heading for the stage. The 40ish Watson is a short, straight-backed guy with a Mel Gibson-like compactness and a striking resemblance to a young Merle Haggard. He entered last—in leather duds, with tattoos all down his arms and chain-drive wallet—accepting claps on the back from well-lubricated country fans and uttering chipper “well, thank yous” in clipped, Elvis-speaking tones. If you’re wondering where all of the classic country stars have gone in this polished, jingoistic age—look no further.

There aren’t too many nonmainstream artists who could roll up into Troy and do a set based on audience requests. But that’s exactly what Watson did, with the audience (everyone from aging country fans to the spare young punkers to several bikers) showing a keen knowledge of his canon. The highlights are almost too many to mention. Watson writes tunes that sound like classics; it’s as if you’re channeling some border radio station from the ’50s. And his band have an amazing feel, whether relaxing into a funky lazy groove, chugging down the highway or burrowing into some heartworm balladry. Like the best of old country, there’s also a sharp wit and weirdness at work in a lot of Watson’s songs: “Longhorn Suburban,” for example, and “Trucking Queen,” an allegedly true story of a mythical, transvestite trucker who would come on the CB-radio airwaves and say (as Dale demonstrated by lifting his Telecaster to his face and speaking through the pickups), “I got my nightie on, I’ve got my pretty red panties. . . . I’m ready to go in a minute!” (Watson also pointed out that few people had ever seen the mythical trucker—“like Sasquatch.”)

Things really heated up toward the end of the first set, with “Exit 109,” “Truckin’ Man” and the Bob Wills Texas-swing classic “Home in San Antone.” (And throughout the night, Watson’s Telly tones, mostly thrummed out on the low strings, entwined nicely with glistening licks of pedal steel, fiddle and a rhythm section that was, how you say, “tighter ’n a clam’s ass.”) In an age when even a lot of the proposed “alternatives” to mainstream country come off opaque (or are actually repackaged folksters), it’s remarkable to catch an artist who has truly tapped into a vein of authenticity. Watson isn’t simply a nostalgia act; he’s revitalized the form. He reminds us that a lot of the best country songwriters were smart, sensitive, funny and kind of fucked-up. Like the rest of us.

—Erik Hage

Winding It Up

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, June 20

I drove into SPAC Sunday with two Phishheads in my car. They had gone Saturday too. We had one ticket among us. And even though I had driven from Boston that morning, the lads told me tickets would be no problem. Indeed, before we even parked, we nabbed two tickets at face value right through the window of the car. Even my confident mates were mildly surprised, especially with this being the 20th and final Phish summer ever.

We dumped the car and made our way to Shakedown Street (“Nothin’ shakin’ on Shakedown Street/Used to be the heart of town/Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart/You just gotta poke around”). Shakedown Street is slang for the preshow assemblage. It’s where you can find your friends (lose your friends), bottles of ale, cans of Genny, caps of E, tabs of lucy, bars of “dank chocolate hash,” nugs of the greenery, champagne, crystals, blown glass, cocaine, pharmacologically undocumented goo-balls, hippie regalia and who-knows-what-else. A lot of swapping and sharing and selling going on. And a lot of buzzes getting under way. I was impressed by the hands-off approach of the cops, who turned a seeming blind eye.

Once inside, my boys arranged good digs on the lawn. That was key, as the dancing sure went way past the sight lines, but I was keen on dancing with a view. I am a sucker for a solid jam in most genres, and Phish jam across the genres. And when tens of thousands of revelers are noodling and gyrating in a crowded euphoria, not moving with them requires a concerted effort or on-your-ass drugs.

They began the first set, surprisingly, with their 1993 song “Rift,” and followed with “Julius.” And then they played “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home” with keyboardist Page’s dad, elder statesman Dr. Jack McConnell, on vocals. McConnell tap-danced too, donning his white hat. Very lovely indeed. I could detail the set list, but everyone who cares knows.

What I can say is the band were spot-on. They were about as tight and sharp as the spring inside the spool you mount your toilet paper on. Trey Anastasio’s guitar playing leaned toward tunefulness not stunts, and McConnell’s foray at the keys was similarly more intoxicated with song than with pyrotechnics—not that both players didn’t blow a few showboating wads. Drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon, though, were the rabbit that kept us all coming around the track all night as their backbone bespoke the kind of churning I’ve only heard butter talk about.

A marshmallow war occurred at one point. But it was the glowstick war during the second set’s “Seven Below” that really smelled of Phish legend. The middle lawn became its own light show as the crowd threw their illuminated joy into the air. Then Phish cleverly jammed their way out of “Ghost” and directly into “Twist.” The encore Zep cover (a Phish standard), “Good Times Bad Times,” brought down the house as it highlighted and hardened the bluesy groove tightness that had blossomed all night.

Postshow Shakedown Street was a washout. There was a mysterious absence of nitrous tanks hissing “nightcap” into balloons. And K-9 units lurked along with cop lights aplenty. I heard one girl say “I feel like I could stay up all night,” and I know she wasn’t alone. Suddenly fireworks began exploding and one of the four mounted cops lost control and his horse hoofed a seizure that could have taken out tens of us. Then I heard a guy who clearly doesn’t want to deal with cops say, “Fireworks, huh. That’s good to know.”

—Tom Flynn

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