After shooting the rapids of downtown’s Friday night to get to the Sundresses’ affair (in which I played the part of the kayak), it was my fervent hope that the skies would clear and remain free of precipitation for MidPoint’s final slate of shows on Saturday. It certainly looked good at 7:30 p.m. as I sat in the car going over my schedule before hitting the sidewalk. Who knew then that the metaphorical storm clouds generated by Cadillac Ranch would be bigger than the literal batch that Mother Nature whipped up for us midway to the end of MidPoint?
My first stop was at Javier’s to catch some of the Flux Capacitors’ beginning-of-the-end set. If you’ve ever asked the musical question “What the Flux?” last night provided the appropriately meaty, beaty, big and surfy answer. If you think Surf Rock is juddering melodies and recurring themes, well, you’re partially right, but our own Flux Capacitors turn the genre on its head, shake the change and keys and lint out of their pockets, slap it on the ass and send it home to Mother. Just as the band settles into their amped up version of what a Surf band is supposed to be, they drift off into a wildly evocative psychedelic reverie before snapping right back to the edge of the ocean of their minds. At one point, the Capacitors’ Surf charge slid effortlessly into a Yo La Tengo-esque noise fest, but at least one high point had to be when they recreated the we-talk-to-aliens-with-sound scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, replicating both the simple five note tone poem that the humans opened the conversation with and the crescendo blast of the alien’s response. It was a magical moment.
I decided to cut out midway through the Capacitors to catch the last half of Aeolian Race at the Courtyard before the MidPoint premiere of Sparrow Bellows, the new incarnation of one of last year’s festival highlights, The Emeralds. One might have discerned the Boston band’s sonic direction strictly from bassist Adam Abrams’ T-shirt, which read “Everybody Loves Mushrooms.” It’s been a good long time since I loved mushrooms (or, more to the point, since they loved me) but Aeolian Race brought it all back like a wet kiss on the end of a hallucinated 12-fingered fist.
The trio made an amazing amount of proggy, poppy noise, referencing My Bloody Valentine sheets of shred, courtesy of guitarist Mike Elliott, and Red-era King Crimson, by way of Abrams’ Wetton-like bass ministrations and drummer Andy Nickles’ subtle-to-perfectly-bombastic drumming. You want kamikazi? Aeolian Race had a show Sunday night ... in their home state. Where they played three nights ago. There’s your dedication to the cause. Doff your headwear and raise a glass of acid-laced libation to Aeolian Race.
As it turned out, I saw more of Aeolian Race than I’d intended, as the Courtyard’s schedule was shifted half an hour, meaning that Sparrow Bellows started at 9:30 (ultimately short circuiting my plan to see the Fairmount Girls), but no matter. At the appointed half hour, Sparrow Bellows’ mighty triad stormed the Courtyard’s area rug-sized stage and tore up the joint with a ferociously fun set of Power Pop. Because of a year’s worth of confusion with the Japanese Emeralds and perhaps to delineate the difference in the band with the departure of guitarist Peter Underhill, the remaining Emeralds (vocalist/guitarist Ric Hickey, vocalist/bassist Sammy Wulfeck, drummer Brian Kitzmiller) decided to rechristen themselves as Sparrow Bellows. I’m sure there’s more to the story than the Reader’s Digest version Kitzmiller relayed at the Sundresses show Friday night, so I’ll pry full disclosure out of them at some future point.
For now, all that matters is that Sparrow Bellows is still Rock solid as a three-piece, and while Underhill’s presence in the Emeralds’ lineup made them a formidable Pop force his absence truly underscores Ric Hickey's incredible guitar talent. There are very few guitarists who can convincingly shift from rhythm to lead without tripping on the transition (Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend and Eric Johnson come to mind) and Hickey managed to do so without missing a step. Hickey channels his love of Frank Zappa, Adrian Belew, The Beatles and the Stones into every amazing phrase he wrings out of his Telecaster.
The only thing keeping Wulfeck from erupting into John Entwistle-like bass realms is his important role as co-frontman, singing lead on a good many of the band’s infectious numbers. And as Sparrow Bellows’ big man in the back, Kitzmiller anchors it all with thundering whimsy, providing the perfect percussive atmosphere for the band’s infinite variety of moods. A lot of the Emeralds’ old favorites — and when I say old, I mean dating back to their birth as a band in April of last year — were interspersed throughout the set (“Bout Time,” “Miss Linzy,” “Tiny Face Talker”) but the new songs are bound to become every bit as memorable once people start digging into the band’s just-released self-titled debut. Willie S was right: What’s in a name? Sparrow Bellows, like their green-tinted former incarnation, are T-shirt-and-tennis-shoe simple with a wild streak of Art Rock complexity and Power Pop ferocity. And when they throw it all together on stage, they rock harder than a coke boner. The Emeralds are dead, long live Sparrow Bellows.
The Minor Leagues
Departing from the Courtyard was painful for a couple of reasons: I didn’t really want to bail on Sparrow Bellows’ set halfway in, and it was raining.
I’ve loved this band for a long, damn time, dating back to their aborted Single of the Month concept, and they didn’t disappoint in any way, shape or form as a live entity. Ben Walpole is an engaging and eccentrically entertaining frontman, sprinkling his band introductions with a mix of stand-up and sports metaphors; vocalist Hilly Kenkel “is tall enough to play power forward for the Utah Jazz if they don’t sign Paul Millsap;” and guitarist Patrick Helmes “has been playing guitar since he was 6 — he got good a couple of months ago, just in time for this show.” Woven in between Walpole’s stage musings was a Pop/Rock sound that featured all the edge and quirk and delight of Weezer, XTC, They Might Be Giants, eels and the B-52s at an Indie Rock version of LiveAid.
The band’s new album, the just-released This Story Is Old, I Know, But It Goes On, has been in the works for nearly five years — some of the recordings predate TML’s last release, 2006’s The Pestilence Is Coming — and is a marvel of synth driven guitar Pop with more edge than a six-foot Exacto blade. The pinnacle of the set was when Walpole invited Sophia Kostoff-Salyers, eight months pregnant, to recite the Francais passage from Pestilence’s “French Canadia,” and then brought up a couple dozen friends and fans to join him on stage to sing the chorus, thereby creating an impromptu version of the Polyphonic Spree. David Copperfield deals in illusion; the Minor Leagues were serving up real magic Saturday night.
From there, it was time to head for my final destination of the evening: upstairs at Know Theatre for Wussy and Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles. The rain had let up slightly but was still falling steadily, so any drying that had taken place at The Subway was undone within a couple of blocks. By the time I got to Know, Wussy had just gotten underway and the place was jammed like I-75 after an eight-car pile-up.
From the very first song, it was clear that Wussy would be taking no prisoners this evening. Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker were in perfect guitar-and-vocal sync, and Mark Messerly and new drummer Joe Klug were a runaway freight train disguised as a rhythm section. And whether they were hauling out faves from the early albums or amping up muscular versions of the songs on their latest eponymous release, they maintained a relentless foot-on-your-throat, mayhem-in-their-eyes atmosphere throughout the set. Even their quietest songs rumbled with an undercurrent of excitement, like the tremors that precede a block-flattening earthquake. And I believe the difference is Klug.
Let me say, as I did repeatedly to everyone Saturday night, I’ll swear an oath as one of Dawn Burman’s biggest fans. The tenacity and fortitude she exhibited in becoming Wussy’s drummer from the start, the ethic she maintained throughout her tenure with the band and the courage she displayed during her cancer treatment makes her a local legend. But her move to Texas and departure from Wussy’s ranks opened the door for the band to bring an actual hammer-and-tong drummer into the fold and nutkick everything up a couple of levels. Klug is a sonic blacksmith, forging a razor-sharp beat on velvet anvils, laying back and charging forward at exactly the right moment in exactly the right way. By the time they closed out their magnificent set with frenetic takes on “Yellow Cotton Dress” from Funeral Dress and “Rigor Mortis” from Left for Dead, it was more than obvious that the band had not only lived up to but surpassed the tweet that popped up on Know’s side screen halfway into the show: MPMF is Wussy’s bitch.
Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles
Closing out the evening and the festival at the Know was Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles. The Boston quartet started off in an Americana/Folk vein but shifted into full tilt Joan Jett-tinged Garageabilly mode for their last album, The Stars Are Out, and they booster rocket their sound even higher in the live setting. And given that this was to be the last night of their current tour, it was clear that the assembled multitude, which had thinned only slightly after Wussy’s set, would witness. At the same time, their work was cut out for them: They were a largely unknown entity following a drop dead killer set from a much-loved local band, a fact that Borges acknowledged after their first couple of songs when she noted, “When a band is named Wussy, you think you’re gonna kick their ass. And it’s so not true.”
At the beginning of their set, Borges and the Singles looked to be establishing their roles — Borges as the smartass frontwoman with the guitar skills to back it up, bassist Binky as Borges’ comic and musical foil and the one who matches her step for step in guitar choreography, guitarist Lyle Brewer as the stoic one, taking on the natural demeanor of a bass player, stoically taking a position to Borges’ right while peeling off licks like a meth-crazed stripper, and drummer Robert Larry Dulaney, herding the whole manic crew along like a percussive shepherd.
Borges’ voice was huskier than usual, which she attributed to a rare strain of Mongolian Face Flu, but it didn’t become apparent until she was at the merch table after the show just how close she was to actually losing her voice. If the band had booked shows after last night’s appearance, it’s a safe bet that would have canceled them. She was lucky, and we were luckier.
Borges and the Singles are obviously masters of their craft, routinely hitting their wide range of material out of the park, but they’re also completely in touch with their audience as well. When Binky, who looks like Fred Armisen in a Cher wig, made a comment about Borges’ fresh hairstyle, she retorted, “Well, I’m not taking hair advice from you.” And later in the set, she ribbed her bandmates with the aside, “There may be a lot of boobs in this band, but I’m the only one with a pair.” And as the evening progressed, each successive song nudged the energy level a little higher.
At one point, Brewer walked to the front of the stage, hopped down to the dance floor, laid down in the middle of the crowd and blistered out a brilliant solo, then got vertical again, grabbed a woman’s Bud bottle to use as a slide and scorched a second solo. So much for stoic, although he did it all without an ounce of histrionics or guitar face pulling or anything other than Rock-out-with-your-cock-out ability. They came back for one encore, but it was apparent that there was very little soul coal left in Borges’ ass furnace, but she dug down deep and capped the evening with “Open Up Your Back Door,” which turned into a roof-raising Blues stomp and floorshaking call and response with the audience, which built to an exultant and quivering conclusion.
And with that, another MidPoint was in the books. It is the most fabulously exhausting event of the year for me, and my involvement is nearly microscopic compared to the efforts of Dan McCabe, the whole staff at CityBeat and the indispensible contributions of the MidPoint volunteers, those tireless saints who sacrifice their time, energy and sanity to make this all work with as few glitches as humanly possible. And of course, thanks to all the venues who provide the stages (with one notable exception this year; you know who you are) and to the amazing bands (mostly hither but quite a few yon) who are the heart and soul and reason for MidPoint. You are all the best and I’m already looking forward to next year. Right after I sleep a day.
• I did not run into Matthew Fenton at all. And now I’m missing him. Have a great time in Chicago, my friend. Then move back here.
• Note to the Flux Capacitors: Make sure you have change at the merch table. I wanted to buy a CD but all I had was a $20 bill (so partially my fault) and Javier’s couldn’t or wouldn’t make change at the bar, so I left empty handed. Sigh...
• Lots of good folks showed up at the Courtyard to support the Emeralds-to-Sparrow Bellows transfiguration. (Shouldn’t the Archdiocese have sent someone over to consecrate the event? One would think...) This was my first crossed path with boss John Fox, who had just paid for his beer and doesn’t suck it down like most thirsty, drunken writers, which is clearly why he’s the boss, but it also negated the opportunity for me to buy him the beer I owed him from last year. 2010 will be here before you know it, John. In short order, Chuck Davis and Jason Gargano were in the house to dogpound for Hickey and company. And John introduced me to former CinWeekly/now CityBeat scribe Rich Shivener, who seems like a great guy and is definitely a quality addition to our writing stable (insert whipped horse whinny noises here). Brian Kitzmiller’s lovely wife Sarah was in attendance, with no Post-Its in her hair and virtually unrecognizable, and former Roundhead (and more) bassist Kip Roe was keeping it real at the bar. And it was great to see Gregory Gaston, whom I met for the first time back in February at Michael Riley’s birthday soiree. And while we’re on that subject, I’d like to personally dedicate MidPoint 2009 to Michael’s enduring memory.
• Ran into Mad Anthony frontman Ringo Jones at the Minor Leagues gig. I almost didn’t recognize him because he was standing still. He introduced me to his lovely date Amy and then bought me a beer because I shamelessly (and deservedly) kissed his ass in yesterday’s blog posting. Thanks again for the brew, bro… And the rest of you slack-asses, if you want to see how Rock & Roll looks and sounds with 40,000 volts coursing through its testicles via a set of Guantanamo Bay’s finest jumper cables and four truck batteries, look for the name Mad Anthony in the band listings. The quality goes in before the adrenaline hits critical mass.
• No C.A. McConnell sightings this year. Maybe next year, Christine … sounds like you had a great festival.
• The Wussy crowd was packed with familiar faces, including bosses John Fox and Dan Bockrath, MidPoint co-architect Sean Rhiney, Kip Roe and my daughter’s junior high occupational therapist. You never know who you’ll see at MidPoint. In beer related news, Dan bought me yet another beer in his bid for sainthood. It was a Moerlein. Thanks, St. Dan.
• Sarah Borges liked my Sid and Nancy T-shirt. I like Sarah Borges. There seems to be a nice balance in that equation.
• Do you hear the sound of crickets and rustling tumbleweeds? That’s an abandoned old ghost ranch at MidPoint 2010.