Wednesday March 28th, 2003 at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA
Atom and His Package, Brazil, & The Zambonis

Atom and His Package Brazil The Zambonis [more]

(Note: my photos have been in a terrible slump lately. The lights at the Middle East upstairs are too low to shoot without a flash (especially during the Zambonis – I don't think there were but three red cannons on), and I'm just learning how to use this new flash. Since the only place to shoot is sandwhiched up against the shallow stage, there just aren't many options. I'm not exactly proud of any of these, but here they are for completeness sake.)

Spring is springing in Boston, and this evening marked my first opportunity to scooter out to a show. This, of course, means you won’t have to read about bus routes at all. Instead I could go on for pages of paragraphs describing the sheer elation I felt at feeling a warm wind on my face again. Or how earlier that day, I had spent four glorious unemployed-midday-hours playing basketball in the park. Winter isn’t gone for good, but I’ve gotten my first taste of spring, and it’s been a long time coming.

Although a bill consisting of just Atom would have been acceptable, I was excited to finally see The Zambonis. For reasons too lengthy to go into, I have somehow amassed quite a collection of records from this band of hokey hockey hucksters. When the foursome stepped on stage, each one wearing complete CCM hockey regalia, I was already satisfied with their performance.

The thing you need to understand about The Zambonis is that hockey overrides all else. The music is really secondary. Whether the band is mimicking the rolling country of Johnny Cash in Greatest Season Ever or crooning the lonesome Cortisone – complete with 50s-style three-part backing vocals – the crux of it all is hockey. For ten years and countless songs, hockey has superseded everything else. I can respect this purity; it has landed the band some great accolades, the highlight of which must have been performing at the 2002 All-Star game.

It’s quite possible that the set’s highlight occurred during the first song. The band opened with a positively childish (think former labelmate James Kacholka Superstar) song entitled Hockey Monkey. The song is about, what else, a monkey who plays hockey and the children who love playing hockey with him. Each verse is nearly identical, but I dare anyone to find a catchier song.

As a delightful (although not unexpected) treat to the audience, Atom joined The Zambonis for several songs. After providing vocals for the first song of the collaboration, he picked up his guitar for two more – all three co-written by Atom and The Zambonis frontman Dave Schneider. Before Atom left the stage Schneider was sure to point out the duos shared likeness. It is rather uncanny.

The joint performance created a relaxed, living room vibe in the club, at which point the members of The Zambonis began to open up as well. When the band thought they might have time for one more song, the soundman urged them to play on. Instead, Schneider proceeded to tell the audience the story of To Bleed Black and Gold, a song written for a local sports program as an intro to Boston Bruins hockey coverage. Four days later, I’ve yet to get the song (or the story) out of my head.

Before the members of The Zambonis were even off the stage, Indiana’s Brazil was readying their equipment. A quick glance at these young, thin, tattooed boys provided enough visual clues for even the uninitiated to realize that a change was at hand. In fact, those who were familiar with Brazil had probably already questioned the club’s odd pairing. While both The Zambonis and Atom traffic in light fare, farce, and outright comedy, Brazil is a painfully serious band. Where the other bands provided bounce, Brazil brought volume and intensity. How the band ended up on the stage between The Zambonis and Atom and His Package is anyone’s guess. However, I’m banking it has something to do with Atom’s past life in hardcore bands, or, possibly, his current dual life in File 13 Records. Whichever, or whatever, the reason, The Middle East couldn’t be faulted for this one – Brazil was part of Atom’s package tour.

Those who only know the band via its recordings are getting only 20% of the story. On record, they seem deliberate and often restrained, as if they are trying to be a cut-rate version of The Faint or [DARYL]. This creates studio songs that are cold and uninvolved. This is definitely not the impression Brazil made on the Middle East’s audience.

Live, Brazil has little in common with the current crop of keyboard revival bands. Instead they’re most similar to …Trail of our Dead, At the Drive In, or the screamo bands whose heyday ended nearly a decade ago. There are minor updates (keyboards provide more atmosphere, the guitar has more effects), but the spirit of reckless release prevails.

Vocalist Nicholas Newby’s stage presence is enigmatic; neither chatty nor stoic, his demeanor is largely business. His vocals have the ability to move from a melodic, nearly-spoken hush to a punchy rock voice with just a hint of harsh timber at its ends. Those familiar with the genre realize the anguished screams never come from the vocalist, but rather the guitarist. For Brazil, this is Aaron Smith. How Smith learned to summon those throaty howls is another entire article, but know it involves small stuttered hops, a craned neck, a very red face, and a multitude of traceable veins bulging from the neck and face.

On the stage, the recorded intricacies of complex compositions were scrapped, leaving energy as Brazil’s only tool. Sweeping power engaged the audience, and that same power spoke a simple language recognized by everyone in the club. The danger of swinging headstocks, tossed microphone stands, and flung and falling band members only served to further rivet all eyes on the sextet.

Near the end of the band’s set, Smith asked if the war was still going on. I’m not quite sure if the shell-shocked audience murmured “yes” or not, but after a short pause, he followed his question with “And are you still pissed?” This time a shorter pause preceded his return of “Good.” With that, he stepped back towards his amplifier and sawed into the band’s final song. By song’s end, every string on his Fender Stratocaster guitar was broken, his fingers left bloodied. Again the audience paused, confused for a moment before responding, this time with applause.

One of the most immediate joys of Atom and His Package is the minimal setup time he requires. Atom (Adam Goren) merely needs to sling his guitar around his neck, walk onto the stage, plug his guitar into an amp left by a previous band, and ask the soundman to check the volume on “The Package.” The Package (which he insists was foolishly named years ago) is the sequencer into which Atom programs the backing tracks to each of his songs. While in the past The Package has been a more prominent (albeit uninteresting) part of the stage show requiring constant care, feeding, fingering, and debugging, at The Middle East, The Package sat back with the soundman. At this show, Atom would simply call back to the soundman to start “track 19” and The Package would begin the desired song. Today, The Package could simply be an elaborate karaoke CD and the audience would be none the wiser.

Of course, the audience quickly picked up on this course of action, and was soon shouting blindly for “number 13” or “number 24.” The dimmest in the crowd continued these calls throughout the entire set, eventually graduating to calling for “69” or “666.” Gosh those sure are funny numbers. I’m not sure if I was more embarrassed for those simpletons or for us Bostonians who are in someway responsible for “leaving one behind.”

Atom opened the set with I’m Downright Amazed at What I Can Destroy with Just a Hammer – a song, Atom explained, about remodeling his house and just how unexpectedly easily the demolition portion of the job had gone. Like most of Atom’s songs, there is an irresistible bounce, a simple pop structure, and a repeated chorus that will remain in your head for weeks. In fact, you’re likely to find yourself singing the silly refrain at the most inopportune times.

Three or four songs into the set Atom played the descriptively titled (Lord Knows It’s Hard to Be Happy When You’re Not) Using The Metric System. Despite Atom’s whimsical nature and simplistic song structures, …Using the Metric System is an example of just how simultaneously powerful his songwriting can be. The anthemic breakdown is pure power and recalls that of “serious” work such as early Fugazi or Avail.

Having all the time of a headliner, Atom took the opportunity to provide descriptions, histories, and explanations of songs that were often longer than the songs themselves. Of course that’s part of the fun. After closing with favourites Happy Birthday Ralph and Punk Rock Academy, Atom tried to leave the stage. He had only made it three or four steps when he returned to the microphone and thanked the audience. He continued by warning the audience that he’d play another song, but it was one which seldom worked. Furthermore it would require audience participation. Armed with only his microphone, Atom waded out into the crowd performing I Have No Head replete with its “tastes great”/”less filling” audience-dividing refrain.

Minutes after completing his set (and barely after midnight), Atom joined the public gathered around his merchandise table. For the next twenty minutes, he shook hands, sold records, and signed autographs. Although Atom is humble and unassuming, he’s a star. Even though his lyrics are personal, they’re generally about the mundane, something universal to all of his fans. The admirers further connect to Atom perceiving his music as the ultimate statement of DIY. Punk taught us that you don’t need music school or innate talent to express yourself musically; Atom teaches us that you don’t even need a band.