Saturday February 22nd, 2003 at The Middle East in Cabridge, MA
Soledad Brothers, The Witnesses, Read Yellow, & The Damian Pratt

Soledad Brothers The Witnesses Read Yellow The Damian Pratt [more]

(Note: Okay the photos are embarrassingly bad. If I had any shred of professional aspiration for my photography I wouldn't share. Luckily for you I know I'm in the same league as your aunt with a point and shoot disposible camera at your cousins 13th birthday party. This is documentation, not art.)

Matt Rubin brought Read Yellow to my attention a few weeks ago during one of his “Let’s Take Over The World” hype sessions where he tries to convince me that URININE would be unstoppable if it just had his A&R guidance. Being game, I contacted the Read Yellow’s Evan Kenney and made plans for Matt and me to dine with the band before their show the following week.

The short story is that neither happened and instead I sat leaning against the wall in The Middle East’s upstairs room from 6:30 until the show started at nearly 9:30. Most of those three hours were spent playing Scrabble on my Palm, but other highlights included: shoveling snow so bands could get in, carrying in band gear, moving band gear about the room, and following sound gal Abby about the club on minor errands. Typically, those are very boring tasks; in the post-Great White world, however, the location of gear is life or death…

Just a tad before the doors were to open at 9pm, the owner of The Middle East stormed into the upstairs club, completely livid with the placement of 2nd, 3rd and 4th bands’ gear. Despite an aisle leading to the firedoor wide enough to thrill any Fire Marshal, the owner wanted to take no chances. He forcibly recruited me and within seconds we were haphazardly dragging band gear away from the wall, and into the center of the room. It took almost a half hour before he and the staff arrived at a solution that met everyone’s needs, and, as a result, the doors opened late. The last word came from the owner who assured me it was my life that he was saving by having me move Read Yellow’s kick drum – he also assured me the club does have a sprinkler system. I know the thought had never occurred to me (pre or post-Great White), but the incident was a major topic of overheard conversations that night. It seems that plenty of mothers called their college daughters for reassurance that weekend.

When the audience was allowed in, it was stacked with an odd demographic I’m just not used to seeing at shows. Not only were these not indie rockers, they weren’t rockers of any sort. They were married couples that seemed to be enjoying a rare Saturday night without the kids. The Damian Pratt’s final show (at least in the current incarnation) created a welcomed occasion where the atrophied after-midnight muscles could be exercised. To mark the event, jeans were ironed, fringe was ruffled, and hair was sprayed. For any other band these fans may have seemed out of place; fortunately, the members of The Damian Pratt are far from their prescribed rock star mold as well. If not for a fading purple dye job, anyone spotting this troop of blue-collar-via-bohemian thirty-somethings on the street would have had no idea they comprised a rock and roll outfit. I suppose rock is that wonderfully pedestrian.

Of course, The Damian Pratt’s music spoke to that Levi aesthetic. In a short twenty-five minute set, the band presented bar rock in a very usual way. With little flash (save Nina [last name withheld] starring as the diminutive bouncing guitarist), even the band’s fans seemed unsure of how to celebrate the event. It took a (surprisingly true) cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “I’m Burning For You” to engage the audience at all. Unfortunately, the band was unable to build on this momentum as the soundgal immediately informed the players that there was only time for one more song. For a finale, the band brought up a friend from the audience to sing. And although he was a little stiff, the band made up for it with a sudden surge of energy. Maybe it takes a while for the band to get warmed up? Whatever the reason, the result was a band that ended it’s set, and career ostensibly, on a high note.

As Read Yellow [whether pronounced as “Red” or “Reed” is beyond the scope of this article] prepared the stage, the club shifted. As expected, the kids pushed forward, but surprisingly, The Damian Pratt’s fans stayed put. I don’t think they knew they were supposed to like only one band, or one style of music. Or maybe they just didn’t know what the next band would bring, and would soon decide to beat a hasty retreat.

Even without Read Yellow’s growing reputation in the indie scene (one that began when the band was known as The Sharks!), anyone with even a fingertip on the pulse of the local hipster community would have known what to expect from this foursome of twentyish UMass kids. Just as The Damian Pratt’s lack of fashion aesthetic might have prejudiced the audience, the tight thrift-store/urban outfitters t-shirts and retro-styled shoes gave the audience more than a clue of what to expect from Read Yellow.

Once the band began, and vocalist/guitarist Evan Kenney shouted over the familiar surging waves of controlled youthful rebellion, the audience must have stroked their mustaches smugly. Comprised of a dash of “hectic,” a pinch of “winding,” a generous handful of stage-floor-writhing, and a double helping of “grand crescendos before abrupt stops,” the band’s set was all very standard-fare. There are moments of smart songcraft, interesting arrangements, and genuine energy and intensity, but mostly the band seems to be following the blueprint-for-success set forth by commercial magazines, radio stations, and video channels. This is the pop of Vagrant Records and Hot Topic amplified, jagged, and raw. In this way, the band is just as packaged as progenitors Jimmy Eat World, just prepared for a different audience, one who is already jaded with Jimmy and his Sum 41 counterparts. Read Yellow does it wonderfully and is sure to be their friends’ favourite band. It’s unlikely they’ll take the world by storm, but some bands are better if they’re kept as your hometown secret.

While both Read Yellow and their fans cleared their respective areas about the stage, NYC’s The Witnesses began setting up. To continue stereotyping, vocalist/guitarist Oakley Munson wore a flowery shirt under a tight military-style waistcoat. His blossoming white-boy afro completed an image that, if it weren’t for his Italia Modulo guitar, could have earned him top honors in a Cream-era Eric Clapton look-a-like contest. Again, there was no surprise here as the band began its own take at the British Invasion.

Although Munson is the obvious face of The Witnesses, the other four members have surrendered to the expected spectacle of rock’s current dirty resurgence as well. Owing both style and content to The Stones (via The Strokes), the band projected an image that was equally at home in the garage as it was in the art school. True, the look was in place, but a close examination of Munson’s cherub face and rosy cheeks indicated that The Witnesses’ story would be quite different from those of their 60s heroes. Munson’s The Witnesses has not tapped into rock & roll’s revolutionary vibe of urgency and rebellion, and as such can only present practiced stage presence and historical reenactment. The band has an obvious love of rock & roll’s roots, but one might question the passion that drives them to this particular end, especially today.

Thankfully, that perceived insincerity vanished in the middle of the set when keyboardist/vocalist Bonnie Bloomgarden left her post behind the organ, straddled the microphone, and transformed the band. Bloomgarden’s The Witnesses was a band much more inspired by the glam 70s – by The New York Dolls, by The Stooges. This rougher, ballsy version of the band somehow seemed more relevant, and certainly more engaging. How the band heals this schizophrenia (as well as how they react to the changing sound du jour) will ultimately determine their fate.

After a short set change, Detroit’s Soledad Brothers, who, although forgetting to dress the part, continued the musical theme begun by The Witnesses. By stripping R&B further towards its essentials, the trio highlighted singer/guitarist Johnny Walker’s impassioned vocals and wrenching slide guitar work. Despite bandwagon acquisitions created by the band’s association with Jack White (of The White Stripes), it was immediately obvious Walker is answering to a call deeper than Rolling Stones’, and to a call older than rock & roll.

That said, the band’s calling is certainly not mine. When the band stretched their blues solos into sprawling jams, the audience danced; I simply yawned. When the band worked their name into every song, the audience responded with cheers; I cringed. Not feeling the need for self-perpetuating rock revival, even from a band whose heart seemed to be in the right place, I slipped on my coat, stuffed my camera in my bag and headed out to the bus stop.

During my thirty-minute wait in freezing temperatures I had time for lots of things: Scrabble, moving about to avoid hypothermia, and, of course, reflecting on the show. The evening encompassed such an odd bill of disparate bands playing different roles, and finding different degrees of success. Admittedly, there is nothing new under the sun; however, a band should delude themselves into thinking they are original. It seems as though they should feel they have arrived at the same point, possibly by the same calling, as the groundbreaking artists with whom they share commonalities. While buying into a scene and creating a product for that scene with the proper influences, clothing, language and hairstyles, can be a fun project, it’s not honest. Conversely, a raw honesty without the aesthetic can be dull. If one band is genuine, and another is entertaining, which one is the better artist? Which one will you look for on a rare Saturday night without the kids?