Concert Review: Marcellus Hall & the Headliners at Lakeside, NYC 12/8/07
Hall writes devastatingly funny, lyrically driven, catchy Americana rock songs and tonight he was at the top of his game. It was a little incongruous seeing him onstage with a bass player, considering how long his once-and-future band White Hassle went without one (they beat the White Stripes to the bassless rock thing by a couple of years but never got any credit for it). White Hassle was the late, great Joe Ben Plummer’s favorite band, and for good reason: Hall wrote some very good, very catchy, stream-of-consciousness funny songs with them. And also with Railroad Jerk, his band before that. But in the last few months he’s taken it to the next level. White Hassle were great because everything they did sounded completely off-the-cuff, completely uncontrived. Yet as good as they were, nobody writes devilishly funny, sardonic lyrical putdowns as well as Hall’s been doing with this band lately.
“This is a song from our myspace page,” he told the crowd with just enough of a smirk to make it obvious that he was being ironic. Just a couple of years ago he would have been telling the crowd that the track was from a new cd, which he’d have for sale, and maybe if you were really lucky he’d have a couple of copies on vinyl which some lucky schmuck in line in front of you would snatch up before you could get to them. His music, if not his lyrics, is retro, and a lot of his lyrical swipes are directed at ppl txtn n emailn (is that the right way to spell it? Is there a right way?). While Hall’s songs come at you from all kinds of different angles, never straight over the top, in the end it’s very honest stuff. He clearly doesn’t like the deception that is part and parcel of the myspace/textmessage esthetic, so his bullshit detector is set to stun, and who can blame him, after hearing what he’s got to say. Back Where I Started, one of the early songs in the set might be the best song he’s ever written, an ridiculously catchy, upbeat number that’s ostensibly about a breakup, but there’s all kinds of other levels going on and that’s what makes it so fun, just as much as the killer acoustic guitar intro and catchy chorus (Hall’s also taken his guitar chops to the next level).
The song from the myspace page, Gone, has a similar feel, and an unexpected joke at the end about nuts that had people practically rolling in the aisle. He did another new song, a surprisingly moving 6/8 number with an Everly Brothers feel: “You only see the neon/You don’t see the night,” he admonished. Dylan is obviously another influence, but it’s the young, funny stoner Dylan, that Hall’s funky, talking blues with the recurrent chorus, “It was the vodka talking and the gin listening,” most closely evoked.
Accompanied by a keyboard player who added melodic electric piano on about half the songs, they closed with a White Hassle classic, the title track to their ep Life Is Still Sweet. Having bass to push it along gave it a different feel with a lot of extra bounce, but it still hit the spot. Hall finally went down and did the splits during that one – he knows how to work a crowd, as anyone who ever saw White Hassle live will tell you. Too bad there aren’t more performers out there who put on a show as fun as the one this guy played tonight. Marcellus Hall plays Happy Ending Bar in Chinatown (Rivington just off Forsyth) on Dec 12 at 8 PM, presumably solo, as part of a prose reading series which has occasional music.