Rock is not dead
A triumvirate of promising indie-rock bands takes over the Blue Room
It has become customary at music gatherings for people to reminisce on all the great shows that have come through Chico. People remember Nirvana performing to a small crowd at The Blue Max or how Pavement rocked Duffy’s so hard that fuses were blown, abruptly ending the encore and shrouding the audience in darkness. Or the time Japan’s Melt Banana stunned a Blue Room crowd with their smothering take on experimental noise/hardcore punk or when The Make Up delivered a cool mod nod to R&B wrapped tightly in a fabric composed of beatnik musings and Morrison posturing.
Chalk up Thursday night’s headline performance by Ted Leo and The Pharmacists as yet another transcendent rock experience at the Blue Room.
Semi-locals Royal Crown began the evening with a striking set. The group’s compositions floated gauzily, a transparent curtain of sound, while the lyrics were cradled through instrumental restraint. It wasn’t what was played, but what was left out. Becky Anker led Royal Crown through the brief set, alternating between keyboard and guitar, her haunting vocals sounding her words clearly and with conviction.
“Cake Walk” opened amidst a sweet guitar line, sparse bass and shambling drums. Lyrically, the song’s ambiguity questions the melody’s gentleness, as its protagonist is either parting with the lover, the abuser, or perhaps the very same person ("My ruined belly revives / Under the press of your spine / Our tempted arms unwind").
Accompanying Anker were former Deathstar front man Kelly Bauman (drums), Jason Willmon (bass) and Brad Nabors (guitar, vocals). The quartet seemed intent on treading the same holy ground held reverent by such stalwarts as Nick Cave, Cat Power and Palace. It closed with a gospel-tinged, organ-driven number that hypnotized; as shadows of guitar necks and drumsticks collided upon the red-velvet curtain behind them.
Expectations were high for Seattle’s Juno, occupying the middle slot on the bill and touring behind the fine new album, A Future Lived in Past Tense. Through the course of two albums and an EP, Juno’s members have developed a reputation for exorcising their emotionally wrought demons by way of a dizzying three-guitar attack and strongly literate vocals. When the muse looks kindly upon them, no one can touch them in conveying mood through six-string attack.
At its worst, the band enlists awkward dramatics and a plodding repetitiveness that dulls the senses; such was the case with its set closer, “The French Letter.” But mostly, Juno engaged the audience, performing a soaring version of “All My Friends Are Comedians” from its first album and a thoroughly inspiring take on “Killing It in a Quiet Way.” It was the instrumentals that effectively communicated how special this band can be at times.
Ten minutes into Ted Leo and The Pharmacists’ set, I realized why Juno had taken the middle slot. It is a safe bet that few bands could succeed following the energetic, brash charm of the Ted Leo Pharmacy Experience from the Washington, D.C., scene. A few years back, every indie mag on the counter raved on D.C.'s mod movers Chisel. Critics could not find deep-enough language to prove their love, but for one reason or another the group folded. Leo then formed a band called the Sin Eaters, which eventually led to the current incarnation as Ted Leo and The Pharmacists.
The latest album, The Tyranny of Distance, demonstrates a love of song rarely seen in the underground, or above. A grand combination of explosive, soulful pop songs (not unlike a hyper-kinetic, more angular Elvis Costello), it maps Leo’s influences from the last four decades of rock. While some songwriters use this history as a crutch, Leo is quick to kick it away, fueling his unabashed love of music with enough punk spirit to please even the most jaded arm-folder.
Ted Leo began the set by himself, with a hollow-body guitar and an astonishing voice. After a few songs (including a Wire cover), the band joined in mid-song on the raucous Thin Lizzy-esque “Timorous Me.” It is wondrous how instantly compelling Leo’s songs are, but also a feat that he is able to cram as many words as he does into them without ever seeming verbose. Leo loves the written language as much as he loves the language of sound. As a songwriter, Leo recognizes words carry the same power as a blast of wind from a guitar amplifier.
The Pharmacists included a rhythm section that let its instruments communicate the members’ emotion, belying their stoic demeanor. They held down the canvas on which Leo and James Canty (Make-Up) cast their colorful guitar contrails upon. The quartet bounced between the perfect chiming 12-string guitar pop of "Under the Hedge" and the grand, lurching show closer "Stove in a Whale," a song that blissfully hypnotized with its oft-repeated patterns. Tonight, the band proved that the vitality and immediacy of a great rock band will always transcend gimmicks and trends. To the cool kids who think rock is dead, all I have to say to them is, "Have you heard Ted Leo and the Pharmacists?"