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She Rocks
By Shawn Stone

Juliana Hatfield
Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Mass., July 11

Juliana Hatfield didn’t say a word to the audience through the first three songs. The late-’80s, early-’90s indie-rock darling took the stage with her band—a frighteningly boyish guitarist and the Gravel Pit’s rhythm section (Pete Caldes, drums, and Ed Valauskas, bass)—and just played. This was curious, because the last time I saw her, she performed solo and was comparatively chatty. Apparently, when Hatfield’s in the mood to rock out, she sticks to business.

The audience didn’t miss the stage patter. Northampton is almost a second hometown for the Boston-based Hatfield, and the Iron Horse had a large, more-than-friendly crowd. Though she’s been low on the radar since her heyday, Hatfield has continued to make great music, either as a solo artist or with side projects like last year’s Some Girls (which also included fellow ex-Blake Baby Freda Boner). And she hasn’t lost a thing—her voice still has that quiet, almost girlish quality that makes her prickly lyrics even more effective.

She opened with “Jamie’s in Town,” from her just-released album In Exile Deo. It’s representative of her new material: It has a great hook, the lyrics are emotionally revealing but still snarky, and it’s genuinely radio-friendly. (That is, if commercial radio were still friendly and receptive to nonmope music.) “Some Rainy Sunday,” which she sang the hell out of despite what sounded like a slight cold, has the most gorgeous pop melody I’ve heard in ages, while “Dirty Dog” allowed Hatfield to indulge her heavy-music tendencies.

On that point, Hatfield definitely has a jones for heavy music; the band often played loud enough to blast the pop sheen off the songs. Oh, and she rips out leads like she’s pissed at her guitar.

When Hatfield opened up for Aimee Mann a few blocks away at the Calvin (on the Lost in Space tour), she did a solo electric set that managed to turn the theater into her own living room. Hatfield repeated this trick for the encore—the band didn’t return with her, and she let her inner anti-folkie come out. I’m not usually enthused by the solo-electric-guitar-and-voice combo, but Hatfield made it work.

The Damnwells, who have been compared both favorably and unfavorably to the Replacements, worked the mournful, rootsy side of the street in their set. Even if they did have too many slow, er, let us say deliberately paced songs in their set, they were never less than impressive. Especially noteworthy was guitarist Dave Chernis, whose fat solos either were right up in front of the band’s sound in the manner of ’70s dudes like Jeff Baxter, or skipped along the edges of it à la the (aptly named) Edge.

Chernis sat in on a couple of tunes with openers the Marmalade. Led by Hatfield’s brother Jason, the trio—with Pete Caldes subbing for their MIA drummer—were quirky. In a good way. Much of the awkward charm derived from the emotionally twitchy lyrics and Jason Hatfield’s voice, which is as oddly distinctive as his sister’s.

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