In advance of the upcoming "Our Band Could Be Your Life: The Concert" show at the Bowery Ballroom, we at Rockaliser wish to continue paying tribute to one of the greatest rock books ever written. Last week, I wrote a detailed "Where Are They Now" guide to the artists featured in Michael Azerrad's book, focusing mostly on band activity after the book was published in 2001. This week, I hope to similarly guide you through the list of bands performing OBCBYL standards at the Bowery Ballroom on May 22. It's an incredibly strong list of up-and-coming American groups, most of whom are already well-known, but a question still remains: can they all pull it off? And which performances are likely to be the most interesting? My thoughts, below.
Nat Baldwin, David Longstreth and Brian McOmber play Black Flag
You may not recognize the names, but this group is, for all intents and purposes, the instrumental backbone of Brooklyn favorites the Dirty Projectors, sans the two additional singing females. With the Projectors stripped to a power trio, the band's instrumental capabilities will be more at the fore than ever, which will be especially challenging when playing Black Flag's later, stranger work. Longstreth in particular is a major guitar talent, a guy who can noodle with the best of them, and while Bitte Orca certainly isn't very much like Damaged, Longstreth seems like a logical choice to appropriate Greg Ginn's strangled, atonal leads. Among all the bands playing on the 22nd, the Dirty Projectors are the only ones with a history of covering their chosen artist, though I'm not sure I'd recommend the band's 2007 tribute-by-memory collection Rise Above (if you're curious, check out this song, which is amusingly different from its source material). The issue for Longstreth and co. is whether they will work off the arrangements of that album, or try more streamlined, faithful covers. I sort of hope it's the latter, not only because I've already listened to Rise Above but because it would be nice to see the Brooklyn stalwarts rock really hard, for once. In my world, the prospect of seeing the Dirty Projectors play Black Flag live is hundreds of times more newsworthy than that time their biggest hit was covered by Beyonce's sister.
Delicate Steve plays The Minutemen
One of the lesser-known artists on the bill, I actually first heard of this enterprising New Jersey guitarist through Azerrad's blog. Delicate Steve is one guy, Stephen Wong, who plays all the instruments on his recordings and tours with a small band live, mainly on the East Coast. So far, he has only one album, Wondervisions, which came out earlier this year. That LP's MO is chirpy, bright guitar instrumentals, with songs like "The Ballad of Speck and Pebble" and "Don't Get Stuck (Proud Elephants)," each perfectly evocative of its respective title. Most of DS' tunes are brief and punchy, and one listen to Wondervisions will disprove any reservation that Wong is unworthy of channeling D. Boon. As for the rest of his band, I can't speak to their quality--collectively, Mike Watt and George Hurley are four massive, massive shoes to fill for any musician, especially rent-a-musicians, and their ability to play fast and loose depends highly on which era of Minutemen songs they focus on: there's the barely one-minute punk yelps of their early EPs, the funk-fueled maximalism of Double Nickels on the Dime, and the later era of placid, overdubbed classic rock homages. If forced to guess, I'd say Delicate Steve seems best suited for 3-Way Tie For Last-era material, but maybe there's a dormant punk shredder waiting to cut loose on the 22nd--I hope so. By the way, I recommend Wondervisions, although it isn't perfect (some tracks are negligible, the last track sounds more like a scale exercise than a legit song), but I concur with Azerrad's lovely description, that this is "strongly major key and unabashedly imbued with what can only be called a sense of joy and wonder that speaks louder than words."
Ted Leo plays Minor Threat
The eternally youthful-looking Leo, who has (shocking!) been in this business for two decades now, is, by my calculation, the closest thing this show has to an indie veteran. Mr. Leo is of course mostly known for his work with the Pharmacists, a band that has helped produce a mostly-consistent run of great records, most recently The Brutalist Bricks. Mr. Leo is also known for his musical populism, his high punk ideals and veganism, and his occasional acting roles in Tom Scharpling productions. He's so gregarious, he invites fans to play covers with his band. Leo is clearly qualified to do Minor Threat, although note that it is merely "Ted Leo" playing Minor Threat, sans Pharmacists. Does this mean that he is performing solo, or with a different backing band? What if he did an entirely acoustic cover set? Minor Threat is one of the key hardcore bands of any era, but their total musical output barely peaks over an hour--I don't think Leo has that much choice about what to play, although let's guess he skips "Guilty Of Being White."
Titus Andronicus plays The Replacements
Another worthy cover band: in fact, this might be a bit too obvious a comparison. Despite their stupid name, Titus Andronicus is one of the most notable punk bands operating today in the United States, and also one of the most progressive. Their last album, The Monitor, was a punk "statement" album about the Civil War, rife with 5+ minute songs, epic riff breakdowns, and pontifications on the nature of nineteenth century combat. It made a lot of critics' top ten lists last year, and while it didn't make mine, I know there aren't exactly a lot of punk bands left in America that can claim a similar level of authenticity and respect. The major boon here is singer Patrick Stickles' voice, which possesses a plaintive tear redolent of a young Paul Westerberg. No idea if they have a guitarist of Bob Stinson's caliber, though I know they lean heavily on auxiliary musicians these days (in that sense, they are almost Canadian). Replacements songs are hard to nail live, so my suggestion would be to keep the instrumental setup simple, and maybe not concentrate too heavily on Let It Be, if possible.
tUnE-YarDs plays Sonic Youth
One minor complaint some had about Our Band Could Be Your Life was that it was almost entirely dominated by male musicians. It appears Azerrad hopes to rectify this by handing the reins of these overwhelmingly macho groups to some of the best female musicians working today. This isn't to say, though, that the annoyingly-capitalized tUnE-YarDs, aka New England musician Merrill Garbus, isn't still a weird choice to cover Sonic Youth. Da Youf combined dissonant, experimental guitar-playing with punk miasma, but at their core they were a traditional rock & roll band, whereas Garbus is one lady who sings over drum loops for the most part. I don't expect her versions to hew exactly to the originals, but one wonders how she can repurpose Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo's droney six-string interlockings without resorting to a closet full of alternately-tuned guitars herself. Her album w h o k i l l is highly recommended, by the way, although again I find her punctuation infuriating. She has a lot of potential material to choose from (even if she deigns to stick with the pre-major label albums, which is a rule I assume), so hopefully she doesn't get overwhelmed, and hopefully her strategy isn't just to turn guitar fuzz into corresponding bleeps and bloops.
Dan Deacon plays The Butthole Surfers
I may be the only person I know who hasn't yet seen Dan Deacon in concert; apparently his live shows are usually killer dance fests, which doesn't entirely make sense if you only know him from his albums. Lately his stuff has been more lush and freakish, and less about party atmospherics, which works for the Butthole Surfers. Whether or not he can do justice to the Surfers remains to be seen, although signs point toward him at least doing a relatively faithful job. With the increasing availability of home recording technology, Gibbytronics is not the impressive tape-loop feat it once was, and I would be disappointed to see Deacon trying similar tricks from a prerecorded laptop. Hopefully he sticks with the oldest and strangest material, but a few more straightforward rock numbers like "Human Cannonball" and "Fast" would be welcomed as well. Deacon may have the most daunting night ahead of him if he hopes to conjure the anarchic spirit of classic Surfers shows; I don't really care if he forgoes a lot of the additional multimedia stuff, but he has to really go crazy. The measure of his success will be in how bewildered people are after his set. If no one ends up being offended, something went wrong.
St. Vincent plays Big Black
I have little doubt, however, that St. Vincent can pull off a great Big Black set--of all the bands on the list, people seem to be most excited for the prospect of a brilliant lady musician barking her way through Albini's misogynist industrial rattle. St. Vincent's music is difficult to pigeonhole: most of it is more subtle and less aggressive than your average Big Black number, but there are certain tonal and dynamic similarities endemic to what they do, and one thing they both do incredibly well is veer off into scary and unpredictable bits of noise. I assume Clark will be playing the Albini guitar parts, which she is certainly capable of, though she may have less luck trying to recreate the attack from that drum machine. If Clark was born to do anything, she was born to cover "Big Money." I predict she will play that, as well as "Racer X" and "Kerosene." If all goes well, hopefully Albini will hate it, which is as good a sign as any that St. Vincent is approaching this music in the correct, most irritating manner.
Wye Oak plays Dinosaur Jr.
This will be the first time I see my colleague's beloved Wye Oak, playing the tunes of my colleague's beloved Dino Jr., no less. The chances of me bringing this up constantly over the next few months are high, FYI. Wye Oak started as a sort of slow, chimy, blandish duo that has gotten a lot more muscular and focused in the years since, especially on their latest Civilian. They're also another female-fronted group tasked with covering some of the most intense and powerful dude music ever committed to record. Recently I peeped their cover of Danzig's "Mother" to see if I could uncover any clues as to how they might go about covering this mighty trio--I'm not sure I was able to infer much, other than that Danzig cover is a whopper. It's also about half as fast as the original, though, and I wonder if that will be Jenn Wazner's strategy throughout. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing (the average Dinosaur Jr. song is, by my calculations, about twice as fast as an average Wye Oak song), but I really want to see Wazner's take on a J. Mascis guitar solo, and I fear that she won't even try to measure up. With no bassist to fill Barlow's role, can the band generate a comparable cacophony of rock bombast? I hope they make the effort.
Buke & Gass play Fugazi
I'd never heard of Buke & Gass until word of this concert got out; now I'm convinced they're the best thing to come out of Brooklyn in ten years. Apart from the expert songwriting, their instrumental setup is a wonder to behold. Buke & Gass are two individuals, neither of whom are named "Buke" or "Gass"--the names actually refer to the homemade hybrid instruments they sling, which include some sort of bass-ukulele ("Buke"), a guitar-bass hybrid ("Gass"), and lots of foot percussion devices makeshifted into an authentic, almost bluesy battery of noise. Meanwhile, lead singer Arone Dyer has a major talent for bellowing, and the band's tunes are smart, exciting, melody-driven, and full of unexpected hooks. Not unlike Fugazi, actually, although they don't sound similar at all. However they choose to approach the daunting task of covering America's Most Principled Rock Band, chances are it will sound more limber and energetic than any of us expect.
You'll note that there are nine bands being represented at the show, whereas thirteen bands are profiled in Our Band Could Be Your Life; to date, there is no one yet ready to take on Hüsker Dü, Mudhoney, Beat Happening, or Mission Of Burma. Given that Azerrad has been working on this Bob Mould autobiography, I am hopeful that we get a Mould cameo at some point (in which case the chances of Grant Hart showing drop to absolute zero). Who knows: maybe Burma will drop by for a song or two. Even if that doesn't happen, the deck is already overstacked with major talents, and hopefully each band is given time to cover several of their favorite songs, and it doesn't become a round robin of two or three covers each. Basically, any of these bands could cover just about anything and I would be satisfied. If you're a fan of the book, or if you're a fan of any of these bands, I expect it to be a life highlight/endless party.
PLUG ONE: Be sure to check out my radio show, which is currently in the midst of its own month-long Our Band Could Be Your Life tribute. If you listen tonight at 8 ET, 7 Central, I will bedoing a show on notable OBCBYL record labels (such as SST, Touch and Go, Twin/Tone, etc.). You can also stream or download the last two episodes here and here.