Wednesday June 4th, 2003 at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA
Elliot, Mae, & Harris

Elliot Elliot Mae Harris [more]

I was never a real Boy Scout. However, you'd never know it by the way I pack up to leave the house. Before stepping out the door, I load my bag and pockets with a laptop, Palm Pilot, cell phone, wallet, iPod, book, spare glasses, and every accessory and accoutrement imaginable for each of these items. Always be prepared, right? You'd think I was leaving for a weekend, not an evening at a venue that's three miles from my home. Of course, I did feel quite content sitting in the window seat of a warm pizza joint on Cambridge's Main Street, reading The D'Oh! of Homer, watching the rain fall, and eating my veggie grinder. As I walked back to The Middle East, the effects of the rain were entirely cancelled out by The Replacements coming from my iPod. Most don't even look up when it's raining; I'm pretty sure I was smiling. Everything just seemed right. That's what proper planning can do for you.

At a little before 9pm I arrived at the club where I was shocked back to reality when the cute door gal asked me for the $10 cover. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the dim club, but when they did, I found my position in front of the stage had been stolen. Of course, I wasn't entirely surprised. When I walked by the club on my way to the restaurant an hour earlier, a line had already formed outside. Everyone knew this show wouldn't sell out – not during the summer – so I supposed these kids were just waiting to get a vantage point by the stage. Their vigilance was my folly, and, as a result, I found myself standing behind a tall, swaying gentleman during the first band's performance.

Harris, from what I was able to see, is a local band of indirect indie rockers built with two guitars, vocals/bass, drums, and keyboards. While rooted in the same rock aesthetic found in countless bands, Harris twitches in a way that makes them stand out – most of it due to the guitar work of Matt Scott. The quick, metallic winding leads were brilliant and every bit the genius of King Crimson. Although the keyboards seemed entirely ineffectual, it may have been due to my close proximity to the stage and position behind from the PA speakers. Only occasionally did the piano tones even pierce the thick buzz of the band. When the energy surged, and the band churned and crunched, all instruments seemed to stop, allowing the visuals of a band bounding about the stage to take over. The band played with the vigor and experience born from all-ages basement affairs, VFW halls, and house shows. All of it was reminiscent of the early 90s hardcore scene when the 4/4 down strokes grew into more interesting "post" and "neo" labels. Harris is authentic and should definitely make your "to see" list.

Following the youthful energy of Harris was the rehearsed, tired performance of Mae. While the band's name was entirely new to me, the audience seemed to have been studying the band's debut CD for months. Each time I looked away from the stage, I saw the under-twenty-one set mouthing every word sung by vocalist/guitarist Dave Gimenez. This may have been Gimenez's saving grace, however, as he was reportedly suffering from some illness he asked the audience to forgive. The audience, of course, assured him that he sounded fine – even going so far as to offer up a heartfelt "We still love you." Both the band and the audience seemed terribly earnest, fresh, and shiny. It all reeked of Cornerstone or some Vacation Bible School version of punk rock. [Okay I just went online to get the names of the people in the band and then found out they are a Christian band. Damn I can smell 'em a mile away.]

While the audience may not have been terribly critical of Gimenez's voice, I must concur that it sounded fine to me {no contrast}. Even though I had moved to a slightly better spot for taking photographs (though still confined to a single spot, and shooting pictures between the bobbing heads of fans), the sound was still iffy at best. As with Harris, I could barely hear the four keyboards of Mae's Rob Sweitzer. What little I could pick out of the mix seemed suspiciously similar. In fact, the entire set seemed suspiciously similar. All songs carried the same mid-tempo rock beat with few flashes of interest or variations that could distinguish one song from the next. Only the five-string bass work of Mark Padgett really interested me. His firm stance and stoic stare belied the complicated climbing bass lines. If you see the band, listen for his lines, and you'll get through the set without much pain.

Thankfully the evening picked up substantially when Elliot took the stage. In fact, the band seems to improve with every performance, as if honing in on something sincere and primal and spiritual. And, maybe it was just the Mae talking, but this show was the best yet. As always, Chris Higdon was honest, direct, and very intense. It's undeniable how much energy and emotion he puts into his music and performance. The same can be said for Benny Clark who caresses the sounds and tones from his guitar. While it's easy to list the attributes of Elliot's music, a simple citation devalues just how rare a band it is.

In the past I've gone on for paragraphs praising the band's blending of atmosphere with jagged emotion, so I won't drag you through my fawning prose again. Instead, I want to bring to light a subtle difference I noted in the arrangement of the rhythm section. During several songs I heard something new in Elliot's music. It took me a while to place it, as it was very familiar at the same time. Eventually I realized those songs featured a strong, tribal use of the floor tom and wide, rounded bass lines resulting in a sound strangely reminiscent of Bauhaus (of all bands). I'm afraid I can't tell which songs contained this element, or if the songs are new or simply old songs that have been re-realized, or if I'm simply calling attention to something that I've always overlooked before. I can say it only added to the encompassing sound of Elliot.

When the band had completed its set (admirably refusing to plan for an encore, as always), I left the show believing Elliot is the best active band in Indie Rock. The passion, the sense of history, the ability to innovate, the simple musicianship, the ethos--it's all there and incontrovertible. Few bands are so established in the music industry and still continue to be valid in their progression. Elliot is the exception.

As other kids stood about the stage, unsure if they should expect an encore or waiting to see if the players would come out for conversation, I packed up my camera and considerable equipment and walked out into the soggy night. Within feet of the club I placed my headphones into my ears and let my iPod continue randomly through its gigabytes of songs. Next up, the Quicksand EP on Revelation. If ever there was a kindred spirit to Elliot's vigorous pathos, my iPod found it.

As with my journey to the club, my walk home was dominated with a confident satisfaction. Sometimes, when the soundtrack is just right, and the small things go your way, the big ones get lost in a good book, a smart bass line, the distorted growl of a guitar, or your own dopey smile inspired by a rain no one but you appreciates.