Fall hit Boston quick this year. We went from air conditioners to heat during the first week of October. There were no cool, crisp days, only cold, rainy ones. The weather has taken its depressing toll on everyone. I've begged out on countless shows and gatherings over the last week, to instead choosing to hole up in my apartment with the warm glow of new music. When a friend tried to get me to a show on Saturday, I declined. When she asked about another show on Monday, I waffled. She then offered to pick me up and drop me off. Without the weather as an excuse, I relented.
I'd not heard of scheduled openers The Organ, but my first inclination was to cheer at a three-band bill instead of four. After another friend warily explained the band's premise to me, I thought maybe I could have stood through another band, if that band were The Organ. Furthermore with the designated opener out of the running, the bill went all topsy-turvy. As part of a month-of-Mondays residency at The Middle East Upstairs, Damone is locked in a 10pm start time. Only three bands that meant despite being the most established band on the bill, Damone would have to kick things off.
Let's sum up Damone quickly: Bassist Mike Vazquez climbed on stage wearing a Poison t-shirt. He wasn't being ironic. He wore it proudly. Damone is not a deep band of sleepy indie darlings creating new sounds for the musical elite. Damone is a non-stop party of a rock machine circa 1983. The band's sound is built on rock with hints of 70s power metal, 70s glam, 80s hair metal, and 80s pop punk. It's a stew flavored by early Go Gos as much as Blue Oyster Cult, from Van Halen as much as Hanoi Rocks.
Damone is led by teenaged vocalist/guitarist Noelle LeBlanc. Bangs cover her eyes, a fashionable scarf hangs from her neck, and she grips a Gibson Les Paul like she means business. Her voice is a bit cleaner than The Muff's Kim Shattuck's or Joan Jett's, but there is a similar gusto. Her look is all Suzi Quatro. Vazquez is a simple bassist with no flash. When one note will do the job, he's not going to use two. Drummer Dustin Hengst is similarly frugal. His kit is small, although he makes good use of his double bass pedal. His fills are generally quick snare blasts that never steal focus. Together Vazquez and Hengst create a tight rhythm section that never lets you forget the pounding 4/4 but stays out of the way of the guitars. Guitarist Mike Woods looks like WASP's Blackie Lawless and may be similarly spooky. His guitar leads are few, but when they surface, it's a symphony of whammy bar from a Gibson Explorer reaching heavenward for C.C. DeVille. [What do you mean DeVille's not dead? Are you sure?] While the band is unapologetic about these jejune moments, the Randy Rhodes-esque riffing in opener “Now is the Time” shows Woods can growl when he needs to.
Unfortunately for Damone, the audience at the Middle East was as soggy as the streets. Aside from a few imported fans, the crowd stood silent and motionless through the set, which, in turn, brought the band's energy level down. Though the band has played hundreds of shows covering the entirety of the globe (including a tour of China), LeBlanc wasn't able to bring the crowd to the party. As such, the show was a flock of oh-so-serious kids staring up at a band so entirely foreign to them that it might as well been their anthropology homework.
After a quick 35 minute set, the members of Damone packed up their gear and their fans and left the club. Whether they all continued the party elsewhere or simply rushed home to allow for day jobs, it was still sad hearing the remaining bands thank Damone so long after the band had split.
Earlier in the night, the members of A Hero Next Door confided that they were nervous about following Damone. The reality is that the two are apples and oranges. There are no meaningful comparisons to be made. A Hero Next Door is emo in the flowing, over-earnest, newschool way. And while the band may mix its soaring guitars and vocals with some crunchy hardcore or occasional off-rhythm curiosities, its music is usually very straightforward.
Cute and cuddly vocalist Mike Soltoff serves as the band's frontman. Throughout the night he leans out to his audience, they sing along and swoon, and then he snaps back onto the stage, spins his microphone, and jumps in unison with his other bandmates. While guitarists Dave Siegel and Ben Cohen nail the synchronized jumps, bassist Ryan Secor's excellent backing vocals and commanding swagger provide the needed balance for Soltoff's syrupiness. When the band is on, A Hero Next Door is every bit as engaging as the faceless emo-gone-alternative radio darlings, but when the band falls flat, it's hard to lose yourself in its music. There are no larger than life choruses, no winding guitar leads and no rhythmic breakdowns. While the band is consistent, they just haven't written that big hook in a big song to take them to your alternative mega radio station.
Headliners Lock and Key play the melodic post-hardcore that birthed the emo label decades back. But unlike the polished emotive pop of A Hero Next Door, Lock and Key's guitars grind in opposition, the music is chunkier, and the vocals are more aggressive. Lock and Key's sound is more ragged, less friendly and more dangerous. While this sound may not appeal to those who enjoyed only the sugarcoated moments of the evening's previous bands, Lock and Key has had a handful of successful releases on perennial favourite Deep Elm Records, has toured extensively, and has scene cred to spare. There is no reason the band shouldn't be able to pack the Middle East. Unfortunately that wasn't the case.
Because Lock and Key was asked to play this show at the last minute, it was unable to rally its fans to the Middle East. As such, the audience had thinned considerably by the time the quartet began its set. Even when everyone dutifully crowded the front of the stage, “everyone” was only a couple of dozen people. True to its form, the audience remained stagnant throughout Lock and Key's set, despite the frantic motion of bassist Josh Hey, the impassioned howls of guitarist Mike Vera, and the throaty, gruff scream of vocalist/guitarist Ryan Shanahan. After two songs the band realized its passion wasn't going to be contagious and quickly admitted defeat. The energy level dropped. The motion ceased and the band took the opportunity to debut a couple of new songs – one of which they later admitted wasn't ready for audiences. Oddly enough, this song (listed as “Underbelly” on the setlist) was my favourite with its odd compositional choices, weird arrangements, and stuttering bass lines. Vera and Shanahan's guitars made for a powerful team, joining together for big choruses, or moving in separate directions to create disjointed tension. “Underbelly” was heady, recalling the band's (and my) obvious affection for Fugazi.
While the band members seemed to enjoy themselves at this practice session with an audience (particularly Shanahan who grinned to himself as he sawed through guitar lines), the show should have been so much better. So although I blame the bands for not reviving the audience, I suppose I must also blame a disheartening abrupt end to summer and the arrival of a dreary, cold, wet fall. I just hope Boston can adjust quickly; winter is awfully long in New England.