Too Much Rock
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Monday April 19th, 2004 at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA
Cerberus Shoal, Kayo Dot, The Friendly Bears, Brass Castle, & The Nightlights
Erin Davidson of Cerberus Shoal
Toby Driver of Kayo Dot
Rich Bennett of The Friendly Bears
Chris Strawn of Brass Castle
??? of The Nightlights
[more photos]

Spring has arrived in Boston. Sure the calendar says that spring came a month ago, but only in the last two or three days have temperatures crept up to reasonable levels and trees begun to find their leaves. While the arrival of spring can legitimately represent hundreds of things, to me it heralds the return of scootering season. Oh the joy of pulling up in front of The Middle East, cutting my engine, setting the kickstand, and waltzing in the front door. No waiting for busses, no arriving forty-five minutes early to accommodate bus schedules, no checking the clock and hoping a band will time its encore with the #64 bus, just rock & roll.

The doors opened at 8:30 with the first band expected to play shortly afterwards. Five bands is a lot to cram into one night, and each band seemed to have an inordinate amount of gear (and, in two cases, players), causing lengthy set changes and ample opportunities for me to play The Faint Game&#trade;. Five-band bills are always painful, but this night would last ages.

Opening the evening was The Nightlight. The band doesn't seem to have a website, a record label, a publicist or any web footprint at all. As such, I guess I'll just make up information about the band. The Nightlight is local and has played a handful of shows, but this was definitely its biggest show – something the band members knew was a big opportunity. You could see this in their faces. And while the entire band was a bit stiff, the stage right guitarist looked terrified.

The set began with a noisy rock number sung by the bassist, followed by a delightful Husker-esque song sung by the stage-left guitarist, then a song where the drummer came up to play guitar and sing, then one sung by the other guitarist and finally we returned to the bassist for the band's final song – everyone gets a turn. With the notable exception of the second song, most of the band's raucous material could only be described as "post-grunge" – a term used by lazy critics for loud material that owes a debt to a multitude of styles. But that second song – oh that second song – I'm sold on that one. A bass line that really prods and urges, guitars that buzz as if late for a destination, vocals with some real vitriol, and all of it wrapped in a mean little pop package. I can only hope that this is where the band's heart lies, as the short 25-minute set gave no clue to its ultimate intentions. Now the band must figure out who it wants to be, and whose voice (quite literally) it should follow.

When I saw Atlanta's Brass Castle was only a duo, I hoped for a quick set change. Unfortunately, the guitarist is the sort that works with several amps controlled by several pedals, and the drummer's setup was terribly slow due to a mobility-impeding limp. All this meant the band would spend 20 minutes setting up their gear and 25 minutes playing. The Faint Game in full effect.

While any band with only a guitarist and drummer is bound to beg for White Stripes comparisons, there may actually be something to it in this case. Sure, drummer Christian Gordy is infinitely more interesting than Meg White, but they share the same affection for stripped-down, blues-influenced rock & roll. Sadly, one man's affection is another man's affliction. And while the band's barrage of guitar and percussive noise inspired expected nods and sways from the majority of the audience, it only gave me a headache. When guitarist Chris Strawn went back to play drums, allowing Gordy to come forward, the songs grew slightly more melodic; however the band's music is still built upon piss, vinegar, sweat, and blood – irrespective of the frontman. While that may be enough for some, my interest had already gone elsewhere when the band ended its short set.

The rock & roll revival of Brass Castle is in many ways a direct response to the killjoy indie rock posturing of bands such as The Friendly Bears. Just as punk needed Pink Floyd, rock revival needs the humorless intellectualism and virtuosity of math-rock. My allegiances are easy: I choose the exacting scalpel of The Friendly Bears over the unrelenting club of Brass Castle, but those are merely my tastes.

The Friendly Bears is a mathy foursome comprised of two guitarists, a drummer, and a vocalist/trumpeter. It's the sort of band where the guitarists keep in constant eye contact in order to relay information on upcoming time and tempo changes, where the drummer plays from sheet music, and where the frontman is always looking for a different mix in his monitor. These aren't punks with an urgent message to tell the world, or even revivalists telling us it's okay to rock balls out, but serious students of music. There's revolution in their music; however, it's not about a people's uprising in Nicaragua but rather a singular calculated blending of jazz and post-rock.

Of course the band's path isn't entirely its own – there are progenitors. But while many of the trailblazers chose complete angularity, forsaking all sense of flow, The Friendly Bears build to definite textures and even melody. The band's songs often begin with chaos, and slowly arrive at something recognizable – hooking the anxious audience – only to then introduce a momentum shift causing the song elements to dissolve quickly or disappear into the start of another. As a rule, there isn't hectic insistence in the band's music, at least not in the way the genre's nameables presented it in the past. The trumpet doesn't jab, nor do the guitars grate impatiently; TFB allows songs to develop, and it allows each instrument to tell a story, sometimes alone, sometimes in tandem with another in an elaborate, often disjointed, dance.

It's logical to assume that the growing crowd had come to see headliners Cerberus Shoal, and, knowing that, I couldn't help but wonder how the evening's other acts might have been viewed. Certainly the raw immediacy of Brass Castle contrasted Cerberus Shoal's sophisticated and surreal pop, but TFB was probably just as aberrant(as which band?). Whereas Cerberus Shoal builds organic compositions, TFB is driven by a complexity-for-complexity's-sake approach. Thankfully, touring partner Kayo Dot was much more aligned with Cerberus Shoal's strengths. In fact, Kayo Dot just may have done it better. Or, if not better, then certainly bigger...

Most obviously, New York City's Kayo Dot fills the stage. On this night the band performed as a nine piece orchestra consisting of frontman/vocalist/guitarist Toby Driver, two additional guitarists, two violinists, a bassist (who brought both an upright and an electric bass), a drummer, a brass player (who played trumpet in one song, and baritone in the other), and, for the final song, a guest trombone player. While the physical dimensions of the band are grand, its musical vision is just as awesome. Each song is an immense, elaborately choreographed opus delivered in multiple distinctive movements and lasting over ten minutes.

Those familiar with Kayo Dot's 2003 album Choirs of the Eye know the band is capable of both ethereal slowcore ala Godspeed You Black Emperor! as well as crashing metallic cacophonies reminiscent of Neurosis. What is new, however, is this incarnation of Kayo Dot's beautiful chamber pop sensibilities. While certainly nowhere as fey as offerings by Belle and Sebastian, the band has added light melodic pop elements to its varied musical toolbox.

Unfortunately, the vastness of that repertoire was left mostly unexplored. By the time the entire band had packed itself onto the stage, arranged its sheet music, tuned its instruments, and checked in with sound gal Abby, the band had less than 20 minutes remaining for its actual set. While the nonet did squeeze two compositions into this space, there was no time for it to delve into its longer pieces. Thus, the audience was shown the atmospheric and the pop sides of the band, but never the anguished, heavy, and intense sides. Although that may have disappointed some, I didn't miss the din. I have seen many bands scream on that stage, but I had not seen a frontman conduct a string section. I was hypnotized watching Driver's delicate motions gently guide the violins through the flowing compositions. The resulting sounds were mesmerizing, leaving me with only warm, hazy memories, as if the band's set were only a wonderful dream.

After the cruel tease from Kayo Dot (who, incidentally, failed The Faint Game), the entire stage was dismantled and rebuilt for headliners Cerberus Shoal. While this band is "only" a sextet, its complicated stage setup meant the show essentially shut down for another half hour. Now I appreciate the grandiose nature of Kayo Dot, and the kitchen sink approach of Cerberus Shoal, but the price of such ambitious live performances was 30 minutes of set up with 20 minutes of music, followed by another 30 minutes of set up and 25 more minutes of music. Since this is the first stop on the tour, I can only hope the set changes speed up over time. To be fair, I suppose most show bills won't include five acts, or need to conclude early to accommodate public transportation.

Once Cerberus Shoal had assembled the stage to its liking, it resembled your grandmother's attic – a collection of random discarded instruments, old chairs and ridiculous clothing, and all of this in the dark. Karl Greenwald sat stage-center surrounded by a box of toys and noisemakers. Some were quite literally children's playthings, such as a miniature guitar and a Hohner melodica, while others were toys for bigger kids like his cheap Yamaha (or was it Casio) keyboard, and his Boss Sampler. Not to be outdone, Colleen Kinsella was dressed for the Grand Ole Opry in a floral dress billowed with a petticoat or two, and a petite? cowboy hat that sat atop her brown curls. With a small accordion strapped onto her chest, and a tiny toy piano set at her feet, it was hard to imagine that anything remotely serious could come from her. While there was nothing fanciful about Caleb Mulkerin's guitar and harmonica work, Chriss Sutherland's slapped upright bass performance, or Tim Morin 's drumming, the multi-use Erin Davidson did play the Fisher-Price-esque "Groovy Tunes 8 Channel Electronic Sing-A-Long Keyboard," along with trumpet (often simultaneously), guitar and xylophone. As the band elected to play in the dark (save two small floodlights the band placed upon the stage), I was unable to find the kitchen sink, but I'm sure it was present.

Understanding the band's music is a major task, but certainly worth the effort. Most immediately there are the gimmicks, the hooks, and the assorted noises the band uses. One can't help but notice a shrill whistle or a featured melodica line that sits above all else. These tiny elements create the focal points in each song (or major song segment) and may be used solely in that piece. Without that rattle or that vibraphone line, the song would lose its identity. While imagining the effort to merely assemble these odds and ends for the studio is mind boggling, the fact that the band chooses to cart them around the country, unloading them from a van or trailer each evening and returning them late each night, is astonishing. This traveling sideshow of misfit toys is necessary, however, to approximate the band's songs live. In fact, even with all these items the songs performed live aren't nearly as full as their recorded versions.

The band's barrage of voice is nearly as obvious, and sometimes as gimmicky, as the aforementioned accent elements. It is, nevertheless, the heart of Cerberus Shoal's performance. Whether with microphone or just singing to the rafters, each band member adds his or her own vocal stamp to the band's music. Some choose to blend while others to harmonize, but combined they produce a meandering, otherworldly, entirely enveloping wall-of-sound. Often the band's vocals exist as a rudimentary call and response, with Sutherland's half-spoken delivery serving as a cult-like request for the full band's impassioned return. The result is similar to old Appalachian folk – eerie, yet entirely honest.

The final element of the band's sound is actually the music. Rhythms bubble up from underneath, creating a mere base for the layers of sound that rest comfortably upon them. Songs stomp and march along – similar to works by Tom Waits, or Kurt Weill. There are verses and choruses but they're never assembled in the way one might expect. In fact they're treated more like themes to be revisited, not a regimented path that the song must follow. If one strips away all the extemporaneous vocals and featured noises from the band's music, the band's compositions are surprisingly sparse. This is, of course, hard to imagine when listening to the band's music as a whole. There is always a lot going on.

As the band once called Boston home, it was keenly aware of its time limitations in regards to the night's last train. As such, the band played only four songs, and then ended its set disappointingly early. It was over, just like that.