(Note: Nearly four years after this show happened, I came across a half-written account of the show. I've no idea why I didn't finish it at the time, but rather than trying to recall facts from long ago, I'll just make it available to you now if'n you're interested.
[click to read the incomplete show account]
I think this whole matinee thing is somewhat unique to the east coast. Where I grew up, we couldn't get many people to show up at events when we booked them at expected times, much less if we would have tried to book something at noon on a sunny spring Saturday. However both Boston and New York are famous for their all-ages hardcore and punk matinees, and it was that legacy that lured me to All Asia to see two bands I'd never heard of.
The headliner's publicity agent asked me to show up at noon, and having no idea what to expect, I obeyed. That's a mistake. The flyers at the club said the show would start at 12:30, but the promoter assured my pal Karen and I that it'd be much closer to one o'clock. Rather than sitting in the empty club, we wandered down a bustling Massachusetts Avenue ending up at 1369 Coffee House. With my sissy drink in hand (a strawberry Italian cream soda with whipped cream), we walked back to the club to check in. Still too early. We'd leave and come back several more times before finally settling in the empty, and somewhat depressing club.
Aside from the gear set up in the corner of the club, there was no real sign a show was about to happen. In fact, it came as a great surprise when Michael Hirsch stepped onto the small stage, and announced into the microphone that he'd start "the rock." Although taken aback, I grabbed my camera and sheepishly made my way through the empty club toward the stage.
While I admit I knew nothing of Michael Hirsch before his performance, after he played, after I read the press, and after I listened to the albums, he has become an even bigger enigma to me. Here we have punk rock alumnus pretending to be a singer/songwriter, doing hammy standup on a stage to an empty club. He's put out a myriad of campy lo-fi releases in which keyboards play the largest role, but yet he's standing on the stage crooning with an acoustic guitar as serious as any other folkie. There's a lot that just doesn't add up.
Initially I thought his performance was refreshingly amateurish and conversational. When he forgot how a song went, he'd stop, apologize, and explain what went wrong. When notes were missed, he offered the Cochran-esque rhyming excuse "There is no rock at one o'clock." However this cutesy, coffeehouse-styled banter soon began to grate on me, and it wasn't long before I was wishing that he'd simply play another song, and stop trying to entertain the audience with his adlib witticisms. I was particularly annoyed when Hirsch would spend minutes explaining the already-obvious meanings of transparent song lyrics. All of this might be tolerable, forgiven, or even fun, if Hirsch were in high school, or simply enjoying a lark, but Hirsch is taking this all very seriously.
Unfortunately personality and performance aren't Hirsch's only woes. It seems his punk rock past has taught him some bad habits that he's been unable to shake. Although his voice is casual with a slight vibrato that makes it sound soft, warm and pleasant, he often abandons that voice for a rougher one that he forces through his gritted teeth. Although minor imperfections such as over-enunciated "Ts" are completely irrelevant in punk rock, in Hirsch's current incarnation they are cringe worthy. Similarly, Hirsch's barred chords would be expected in his previous punk bands, but when played on his acoustic Yamaha guitar, they sound incomplete and dull. The near constant strumming, often entirely downstrokes, is also a reminder of Hirsch's musical past. When he does add variations to his rhythms, his songs liven up exponentially, but those songs are few.
Although nothing in Hirsch's canonical list of imperfections is insurmountable with a little reflection and effort, he seems completely oblivious to these shortcomings. Hirsch plays out regularly, and records (and releases) prolifically. Although these are only demo-quality recordings of songs and performances in desperate need of polish, he spends considerable effort and money to push these releases to the largest distributors and onto any comp that will have him. I just don't get it.
Fortunately things improved significantly when New Jersey's Sleep Station took the stage. This five piece is currently touring in support of their new album, After the War, a collection of songs told from the perspective of a soldier in World War II. The album is positively a treatise of breezy pop songs, that despite an obvious ode to early 70s AM radio gems, doesn't seem retro or rehashed, but rather refreshing. While the more Americana leanings of The Pernice Brothers are certainly recalled, there are also the muted psychedelic underpinnings visited by Of Montreal and others of that ilk.
While the band's short set leaned heavily on its new album, older and radically reworked material served as welcome interludes. Much of this "bonus" material featured prominent synthesizer work recalling namelessnumberheadman, Grandaddy and other "folktronica" artists who meld their acoustic guitars with electronic swells or beats. Still another group of songs recalled the organic ebb and flow of Mogwai, particularly as the band moved from gentle pop songs into thunderous movements of dense hyperbole. Although the band only tiptoed into these voluminous areas, the variation added enough passion to earn them crowd respect on any rock bill.