Concert Review from the Archives: The Sons of Hercules and the Pretty Things at the Village Underground, 8/24/01
[Editor’s note: while we’re on vacation, we’ll be raiding the archives for some memorable NYC shows from the past several years: here’s a really great night from a few years back.]
The night began at the C-Note on Avenue C with the beginning of what promised to be a great Americana night: jazzy chanteuse Lynn Ann’s wickedly smart blues band, Gate 18, folllowed by Matthew Grimm, frontman of the Hangdogs, playing solo on Telecaster and showing off some particularly fiery new material, including a typically funny, anti-consumerist anthem called Memo From the Corner Office (a.k.a The Shit That We Don’t Need) and an even more scathing one, Hey Hitler, which connects the dots between the Bush regime (Bush’s grandfather was the #1 American fundraiser for the Nazis in the years leading up to World War II) and their prototypes in the Reichstadt. Wild, jam-oriented bluegrass band Brooklyn Browngrass, f.k.a. Kill Devil Hills were next on the bill, but it was time to head over to the Village Underground for what turned out to be a killer garage band night. The most adrenalizing part of the evening was San Antonio garage-punks the Sons of Hercules. They sound like a Radio Birdman cover band except that they write their own songs. They were pretty phenomenal all the way through. The Telecaster player knew every Deniz Tek lick and played them perfectly: wild hammer-ons, ferocious tremolo-picking and equally fiery chromatic riffs. The bass player didn’t do Warwick Gilbert’s crescendoing runs up the scale, but the drummer could have been Ron Keeley and the Rickenbacker guitarist threw in some tastily minimal, macabre leads from song to song. Meanwhile, the frontman did the Iggy thing, “lookit me, I’m INSAAAANE!!!” Finally, at one in the morning, the Pretty Things took the stage, not the complete original 1964 crew, but close to it. Drums were left up to the group’s manager Mark St. John, who didn’t nail every change, but these guys are lucky they have someone so good who could take over on what was obviously short notice. Lead guitarist (and original Rolling Stones bassist) Dick Taylor held it all together, with his searing blues runs. They opened with a lot of chugging, amped-up early 60s style R&B rock, Roadrunner and such, then touched base with their 70s repertoire with the drugrunning anthem Havana Bound. The best part of the night, unsurprisingly, came during a series of songs from their classic 1967 psychedelic album SF Sorrow: the ominous folk-rock of SF Sorrow Is Born, the foreshadowing of the antiwar number Private Sorrow, a surprisingly understated version of the anguished Balloon Burning and then Taylor taking over with his froggy vocals on the over-the-top metaphors of Baron Saturday (“Dick Taylor IS Baron Saturday,” keyboardist John Povey told the crowd). Later they did an early 70s song that was the obvious inspiration for Aerosmith’s Draw the Line and a fast, bluesy version of the recent Going Downhill. The long encore began with a tentative Rosalyn, a tersely vivid version of the acoustic vignette The Loneliest Person in the World, then a brief, screaming version of their banned 1964 R&B-flavored hit LSD into the galloping, psychedelic Old Man Going, Taylor going to the top of his fretboard and screaming with an intensity that threatened to peel the paint off the walls.
The night began with bluesy trio Gate 18 at the dreaded Orange Bear (a seedy old-man bar downtown in the financial district on Murray St. that hardly ever had anyone there, yet for some inexplicable reason could afford an expensive, state-of-the-art sound system). Instructive how a venue this wretched can still pull a quality act like Gate 18 for a Saturday night show with a $5 cover charge. Indicative of how the proliferation of venues has affected bands that don’t always pack the house. Sad to see frontwoman Lynn Ann (an amazing singer equally at home with searing blues, sultry jazz, twangy country and just plain straight-up rock) being harrassed about the volume of her Gibson Les Paul guitar when she wasn’t actually that loud at all. And she’s a big belter – there was absolutely no reason why the sound guy couldn’t have raised that powerful voice above the volume she was playing at. It was equally annoying to see the band being driven from the stage without giving their extremely enthusiastic audience the encore they were screaming for.
The band did their big college radio hit Nikki’s Tits early in the set, Lynn Ann not even trying to belt it (maybe they’re sick of playing it). The rousing Give Me a Reason, which could be a commercial radio hit, featured bassist Chris Witting playing excellent, melodic fills whenever and wherever he could fit them in. They closed with the swinging cover of the Billie Holiday hit Lover Come Back to Me that they always do. The band seemed in good spirits despite having been treated less than cordially by the club.
The Cooler was our next destination. This venue really shouldn’t exist. It’s on the edge of nowhere in the meatpacking district, draws a crowd of weirdos, is never open when it should be and is owned by someone with a reputation for treating bands – female artists, especially – with disrespect. Said disrespectful owner can’t even find a way to put together his own shows: the bands tonight were assembled by Moonlighters frontwoman Bliss Blood. Too bad the turnout was mediocre at best: perhaps this was a last-minute booking. This time, we’d come out to see the Dimestore Dance Ensemble (the former Devil’s Grimy Ascot, with Jack Martin on guitar), but given how early they’d gone on (10ish), there’s no way we could have made it up from the Orange Bear in time. As it turned out, we got there in time to catch the last song by the excellent bluegrass band Jim & Jennie & the Pine Tops (formerly the Pine Barons – that was before they moved to Pennsylvania from Brooklyn. Go figure). Their stuff fit perfectly on an old-timey bill like this. The Moonlighters followed with a brief, 50-minute set (this band will play all night long if you let them), with a standin standup bass player who was clearly lost when they launched into their best song, Blue and Black-Eyed. It’s a harrowing tale of a prostitute who kills herself by leaping from the fire escape at McGuirk’s Suicide Hall, a notorious early 20th century dive bar known for its suicide jumpers. The tenement that housed it still exists today just south of Houston [not anymore: it’s luxury housing now]. While Bliss Blood didn’t bring the musical saw or the train whistle she played at her most recent show, she did hum along as her second vocalist Carla Murray did a great job with their big audience hit Humming to Myself.
The next act, the Hank Williams Lonesome Cheatin’ Hearts Club Band is a Hank Williams cover band fronted by a young, clean-cut, articulate, educated, possibly very affluent East Coast-bred singer/guitarist who has less in common with Hank Williams than most people. But the band – including a standup bassist, and the Pine Tops’ violin player – is super tight, and it’s impossible to have any complaint about their choice of material. The high point of their set was Ramblin’ Man, which actually gave me the chills. Most sensible people would have called it a night at this point, but not us: we had lost a couple of people from the posse, but a couple of late additions re-energized us and we moved on to Finally Freddie’s around half past one in the morning.
It’s another impossible venue way over on Washington St. a couple of blocks south of 14th. There’s a small bar upstairs, an even smaller one down a flight via a tight, spindly staircase that seems ready to collapse. The bands play in the back of the narrow room, which has benches instead of chairs. But at least the air conditioning was blasting. Too bad the sound was awful, which didn’t help things because the band onstage, Cabana Rock, got very loud in the small space. Their frontman is Cuban-American; their metalish lead guitarist seems to hail from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and their bassist, wherever he’s from, is tremendous (a Latin McCartney, said one of our entourage, rapt). In addition to their two percussionists, they have a rock drummer, a local punk legend who’s played with everybody including the Ramones. He’s very busy, and took a ridiculously long, clattering, Mitch Mitchell style solo that wasn’t exactly right for the venue. But the band was good: while Santana is the obvious comparison, he doesn’t seem to be an influence. They fit in better with the current crop of Mexican rock en espanol stars like Jaguares and Maldita Vecindad, building their songs on folky, sometimes eerie acoustic melodies with psychedelic, electric flourishes and lots of energy. Their best original was a syncopated, swaying number in English called In Your Sanity. They also did a good, boisterous cover of the Beatles’ Why Don’t We Do It In the Road. Since the plan the next day was to get up relatively early in order to get to Hoboken by early afternoon for their annual Arts & Music Festival, I cut out after the band was done instead of stopping at the Fish on the way home for a drink or however many may have followed that.
[postscript: each of the venues here are now defunct, as is every band except Jim & Jennie & the Pine Tops and the Moonlighters. The former have achieved real stardom playing the indie rock circuit and backing Neko Case on her live album; the latter have gone through numerous lineup changes yet seem to get better than ever whenever they bring new blood into the band]