Those familiar with Too Much Rock know that the website claims not to contain any show reviews. While it certainly contains descriptions and photographs of hundreds of performances that I've attended over the last fifteen years, I have never endeavoured to provide any formal or critical guidance to interested parties. Instead I have chosen to recount my experiences at a show – what I saw, felt, and heard while attending each show. In that effort I have committed countless false memories, skewed views, and biased opinions to history. I've always reserved the right to tell my stories the way I want. The account of this night, is no different in that respect. It is, however, a first as I've chosen to remember the night as if stopped after London's Allo Darlin' performed, hoping to wipe from my memory (and never implant upon yours) the performances of the bands that followed. It is surely best for all involved.
At 7:30 I parked my rental car on the street just off Davis Square in Somerville, MA. I was happy to pay the meter 75 cents if it let me get out of the car immediately. The drive up from Hartford was long and somewhat exhausting, as I swam alongside dense but fast moving traffic that was easily spooked by the preponderance of state police cruisers patrolling the route. We must have looked like a school of fish encountering a great white the way we sped and slowed in unison.
The show was at the unlikely venue of The Burren. This is an Irish pub of some authenticity. Of course it isn't in Ireland, but its a far cry from the suburban Paddy McFlannigans sort of establishment that frequently stands in for the real thing. I walked through the bar looking for some sign of the show space. It was in back, just behind a sandwich board alerting a runner's club that they would need to meet elsewhere due to this event. I paid a small cover to a young butch woman then vanished to a well-worn wooden bench in the back of the room.
The club was decorated for Halloween and augmented, for the night, by local artists selling small canvases, decorated skateboards, and (in a truly meta moment) cans of spray paint decorated by spray paint. This evening would be the second in a series of "Big Night Outs," celebrating Boston's gay community. DJs, raffles, and other activities were promised though for our purposes, this was to be a delightful twee show, catering to an insular audience and little more.
Up first was solo artist Megan Slinger. The small audience applauded its friend wildly forcing the giggly and self-effacing Slinger to blush. This was her first solo concert in some time. After strapping on a full-size accordion, and setting her iPod accompaniment, the evening began. Slinger's songs are twee, plain and simple. Vocals are pushed earnestly – even if not advisedly – songs are familiar verse/chorus affairs, rhythms are never tricky, and melody reigns above all. For fans of the genre, this creates the perfect bubbling cocktail to tickle the ears. I was in heaven.
Slinger set down the accordion for several tracks in her kinda-long-for-an-opener set. The first time it was to sing to her own artwork projected on a wall. This is the same sort of sing-along-to-turn-the-page-cutsy-narrative-artwork that Jeffrey Lewis makes a living (hopefully) doing. Another time it was to allow Slinger stretch her range with a (relatively) smokey torch song about a lover she knew was going to be trouble – I hoped it was about me. A femme fatale, however, Slinger is not. Instead she was all baggy pants, a precious t-shirt depicting a squirrel playing a snare drum, a floppy newsboy cap, and heavy-framed eyeglasses that slid down her nose whenever she wasn't pushing them back up. Can you say adorable?
Slinger's set ended with an in-German cover of "99 Luft Balloons" augmented by the members of One Happy Island. One Happy Island's set began when Slinger joined them for a cover of Allo Darlin's "Henry Rollins Don't Dance." See how that happened?
One Happy Island is a Boston trio comprised of drummer Rebecca Mitchell, guitarist Shannon Halbrook, and ukulele player Brad San Martin – at least that's the current configuration and that's the instruments they most regularly plays. Each member takes a turn at vocals though I must say I was a sucker for Mitchell's shy voice, whether she sang lead or merely traded versus with one of the boys. Again the band's music is by-the-numbers twee, drawing on the same tradition that has inspired other New England acts like The Smittens (several of whose members were coincidentally in attendance) and Pants Yell! Unfortunately a rough sound mix (the left channel frequently cut out during the band's set) kept me from discovering any intimate pop subtitles, but hopefully I'll find the band's CD soon and scour it completely. Be sure to listen to the podcast to hear my conclusions.
The final (yes I'm sticking with that story) band of the evening was Allo Darlin' from London (by way of Australia). Like the rest of the bands on the bill, Allo Darlin' make no effort to progress the tried twee genre. For some this may be a drawback, for others the band's revisitation of the UK twee heyday heralded by Sarah Records and Heavenly is a second chance to experience nirvana. Allo Darlin' honours that tradition with both revved-up pop numbers fuelled by DIY urgency, and slower, melancholy numbers that tear at the heart. The band accomplishes both stunningly well.
Allo Darlin' is lead by Elizabeth Morris – a tall, ramshackle, and bewitching woman with bright red lips. She plays her small ukulele (that sadly could not be heard in the sound system) with considerable gusto. After kicking off her shoes, she pogos with a joyful abandon. Bassist Bill Botting frequently joins her in this bouncy affair, and occasionally joins her on the microphone to provide backing vocals. Those vocals share the spotlight in the sublime languid pop number "What Will Be Will Be". As Morris took care of the reckless propulsive strumming, Paul Rains's guitar was responsible for long lines of hummable melody. Mikey Collins' drums are either snappy and simple, or slowly mimic the human heart, whichever the song dictates.
Although the band's self-titled debut album was just released in the US, the album was released much earlier in the UK. As such the audience wasn't treated to some of the band's earliest material (thankfully Rebecca Mitchell and the union of the two openers took it upon themselves to provide me with one of my favourites), but were instead rewarded with several new cuts. One was a delightful ode to Darren Haymen (of Hefner) that was just as wonderful as the artist being honoured, and another (likely still in it's demo phase) was performed by Morris with just her ukulele.
The audience at The Burren couldn't have been more welcoming – a fact that Morris spoke about at some length – yet her stage banter still had a nervous urgency to it. Maybe the fact that the band were not truly the headliners, but were instead just a last-minute addition to a larger themed evening was unsettling to the band. Certainly this fact contributed to the band's relatively short forty-minute set that ended blissfully but without the meekly requested encore.
For the sake of argument, let's just say I then packed up my camera and drove back to Hartford and got a restful night's sleep. It would have been foolish to sit through the next abominable act in hopes the headliner would redeem the evening only to ultimately feel duped by the outcome, having to nap in a cold rest area on the way home, and ultimately arriving back at the hotel in time to shower and head into work.