YR15 in review, pt. III
Night three: Saturday, Oct. 13
“Help the aged, one time they were just like you/Drinking, smoking, sex and sniffing glue.” — Jarvis Cocker
The third night of Yep Roc’s 15-years celebration at the Cat’s Cradle captured the label’s wide diversity — in its best and less complementary lights. Like the other nights, there were times when the shows didn’t seem to know what they wanted to be: Singer-songwriter showcase? Rock & roll night? Americana concert? While that broad range bodes well for a demographic that still actually purchases music, it doesn’t necessarily jibe into the best bill.
It fell to Australian veteran, and new Yep Roc signee Darren Hanlon, to kick off the third night. Hanlon was personable and engaging, and his thick Aussie accent and “gosh, I can’t believe I’m here” humility charmed. His songs, though, at least in this solo acoustic setting, were mostly unremarkable and featured occasionally too-clever-by-half wordplay. (In that, he seemed a younger version of John Wesley Harding, who was on his third night as emcee and sounding a bit worse-for-wear by the end when he couldn’t remember lyrics to his own song.) One of Hanlon’s songs, co-sung with Portland’s Shelley Short, was about a show-and-tell visit to a primary school, which must’ve appealed to the parents in the audience — meaning a good section of this audience.
Pensacola’s Jim White, formerly signed to David Byrne’s Luaka Bop, followed with a trio set that illuminated the night’s schizophrenic quality. White specializes in beautifully bittersweet song-vignettes about the tragic underbelly of Southern life. They’re effective because he often plays a starring role as a fellow outsider alongside the drunk-on-religion head-cases, the late-night Greyhound bus riders, the rehab addicts, etc. He is quite literally a great storyteller, as his stage banter attests; a Southern version of Spalding Gray, perhaps, only accompanied by wistful country-tinged songs. But those stories and songs unfold best in intimate settings. By the end of White’s set —which included an interminably repetitive version of one of his few terrible songs, the blues-drone “If Jesus Drove a Motorhome” —some in the audience had wandered away in body or spirit.
The Minus 5 used their home-away-home field advantage by virtue of their decade on Yep Roc to re-energize the audience. Playing as a quartet, the band’s 10-song set emphasized their rock & roll roots over their twangy ones. Scott McCaughey, his disheveled gray nap-hair covered by a San Francisco Giants cap, even dug back into his Young Fresh Fellows’ past for crowd-favorite power popper “When the Girls Get Here.” “The Days of Wine and Booze” from Down With Wilco and the Gun Album’s “Twilight Distillery” hit nostalgic (if hazy) notes with the crowd, even if many now nursed bottled water rather than bottles of beer.
But they weren’t the only ones enjoying the nostalgic rush again. “I remember the days when somebody used to hand me a guitar,” McCaughey joked during the set. Whatever the inspiration, the Minus 5 turned back the clock as best they could, and McCaughey even managed a Pete Townshend leap after full-throttle set-closer “Aw Shit” left everyone exhausted. “It’s been an amazing four nights,” McCaughey said, alluding to the unofficial Wednesday night set down the street at Local 506. “I can’t believe I’m still alive.”
After a lengthy stage changer-over, local bluegrass revivalists Chatham County Line came out and served up a rally-killing double-play of subdued quiet and earnestness. The quiet part wasn’t their fault, and only pointed out the difficulties determining band order for single-stage multi-genre shows like this. Not until singer Dave Wilson donned a wrestling mask in tribute to first-night standouts Los Straitjackets did the mood kick back into gear. By the end of a couple more up-beat numbers – including X’s “In This House That I Call Home” with John Doe – the band had the audience fully engaged again.
Chatham County Line played around their trademark single mic, of course, and with de rigueur North Carolina state flag by their side. But on a night when a posh-accented British emcee introduced acts from Australia, Florida, New York City, Los Angeles and Canada, pride-of-place nearly bordered on the kind of embarrassing locale-envy that small places have for big ones.
Still, it’s home, and a vibrant, tradition-rich place worth celebrating — something Tift Merritt noted every chance she got. The former Triangle twanger now based in New York City sang the praises of “home” between every song — how great it was to be home, how this’ll always be home, how the Cat’s Cradle stage was like a home, etc. She certainly was treated like a prodigal daughter by the appreciative older audience, though a few seemed flummoxed initially by the big, goofy looking guy in the cowboy hat with the booming voice who joined her for a couple of songs. Hat and voice belonged to John Howie Jr., of course, whose Two Dollar Pistols helped bring Merritt to the attention of many in the late-90s back when North Carolina actually was her home.
Merritt played a few cuts from her new, and first, Yep Roc release, Traveling Alone. Just like the LP, which features key guest slots from Marc Ribot, Andrew Bird, and Calexico’s John Convertino, she got some great help. Eric Heywood’s sparkling pedal steel washes and bluesy lap steel, along with the rhythm section’s solid play, breathed life into the middling tempos, though they could do little to stem the relentless introspection. The audience didn’t seem to mind at all, though, even when Chatham County Line joined them on-stage and the evening threatened to become an episode of Prairie Home Companion.
John Doe noted as much when he got up alone on stage and immediately announced the tone was changing: “You’ve heard quite a lot of folk music tonight, but I won’t be continuing that.” He launched into a scorching, just-the-right-sloppy 10-song solo set, half of it backed by The Sadies. It was a relief to hear someone lob punk-spirit bombs at that same navel-gazing culture that leads to greed-celebrations like Storage Wars, the reality TV show whose mention got Doe really riled.
That may have been a blessing, though. Cathartic fury fueled cracking solo versions of “Never Enough” and “Giant Step Backward,” songs from Doe’s recent Keeper that may be his most X-like since those seminal early days. The former even seems a shit-ain’t-changed community update on “See How We Are.” His acoustic take on “The Meanest Man In the World” from A Year In the Wilderness — “the type of song that’s fallen out of favor these days: the autobiographical murder song,” Doe joked — bristled with welcome menace. It also featured a songwriting conceit others would be wise to look into: An imagined character study of somebody other than yourself.
Doe closed with a Sadies-fueled version of Merle Haggard’s “Are the Good Times Really Over for Good,” linking country and punk by their democratic anyone-can-do-this roots. He then delivered a serious message to the audience: “If you leave after this, you are a sorry mother-fucker,” he warned, “because the Sadies are the best band – sometimes in the world, and maybe tonight.”
Toronto’s cosmic cowboys did their best to live up to Doe’s billing. Led by nudie suit-wearing guitarist brothers Travis and Dallas Good, and stoked by the piston rhythms of stand-up bassist Sean Dean and drummer Mike Belitsky, the Sadies delivered a furious 20-plus-song, 90-minute set of country psychedelia.
Often pigeon-holed as spaghetti western, what the Sadies do goes beyond Ennio Morricone, Dick Dale or Marty Robbins. Wide-screen westerns like “Another Year Again,” “The Curdled Journey” and “The Trial” are the type of revenge and bloodlust songs that’ll be playing when Wallach, Van Cleef and Eastwood meet in hell armed with thunder bolts instead of six-shooters. There’s no ironic detachment here, either; it’s wide-screen epic, but the Sadies’ existentialism threatens to stretch into the coldest reaches of the cosmos. It’d freeze your soul but for the top shelf chops and obvious joy the band divines from being the harbinger of shitty news.
And it’s not all gloom. The instrumental love song “Only You and Your Eyes” says more on the subject than most songs with lyrics. The tempo through twangy old school instrumentals like “Northumberland West” and “Introduction” quickens to awe-inspiring, laugh-inducing light-speed, while “Why Be So Serious, Pt. 3” out-jangles the Byrds and “The First Inquisition, Pt. 4” plugs into the Nuggets garage rock power grid. It seems there’s no outpost of psychedelia or country rock the band can’t navigate.
Live, the Good brothers juxtapose perfectly in temperament and style. Travis rampages around the stage and treats the strings on his hollow-body Gretsch like they’ve personally wronged him (even when he plays fiddle, the bow’s lost half its horse hair after two songs). All the while he’s tearing off riffs like Clarence White on Walter White’s meth, scowling and snarling and laughing maniacally. Midway through the set, he’s sopping wet.
On the other side of the stage, Dallas’ calm defines cool. With his lanky frame and gaunt features framed by jet-black hair, he cuts a spectral figure moving across the stage seemingly without effort. Unless he’s singing, when he can seem possessed, he spends the night in profile or back-to-the-audience experimentation with his delay pedals, which sit atop his amps, creating bottomless caverns of reverb. Between songs, he’s the picture of deference and Canadian politeness; during them he resembles the sewn-in profile of the Louvin Brothers’ infamous cardboard-cutout Satan that adorns the back of his nudie suit.
The band’s era-spanning diversity fuels their reputation as musicians’ musicians, and explains their recording stints with everyone from Neko Case and Jon Spencer to Andre Williams and Neil Young. On this night they flawlessly execute local luminary Dexter Romweber’s classic “Lonely Guy” from his Flat Duo Jets days, and deliver a version of Arthur Lee’s “A House Is Not a Motel” from Love’s Forever Changes that taps directly into the original’s haunting, chaos-around-the-corner desperation. The band’s final 15-minute encore medley of old garage rock nuggets is overlong and at times an inebriated stagger, but by then the band has largely delivered on Doe’s promise.
Sadly, half the audience didn’t heed the warning. Maybe three late nights had drained their diminishing reserves, maybe the Sadies were too loud and rocked too hard, maybe the existential underpinning in much of their music hits too close to home for those uncomfortably closer to the end. But for veterans like McCaughey, who wandered on stage during the Sadies’ encore-medley just to be a part of it, or Doe, who spent much of the set stage-right watching — not to mention the Yep Roc brain trust, drunkenly and exhaustedly draped over the front of the riser fist-pumping — something special was winding down in an equally special way.
For unlike much of Yep Roc’s roster, artists whose deservedly sterling reputations trail behind them from other labels and eras, The Sadies’ prime is occurring in real time. It’s been chronicled by the Haw River label over five records now, each one better than the last and each one reaching closer to transcendence. The Sadies’ career arc hasn’t peaked, and they seem determined not to go gently into that good night — though that, in the end, may explain the generation gap at this celebration better than anything else. Just because you knew the bride when she used to rock & roll doesn’t mean you can’t still appreciate the art form when it’s the turn of other, younger generations. You just have to remember that rock & roll isn’t supposed to have any rules in the first place. —John Schacht