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
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.