It seems only fitting that The Brothers was the venue for last night’s Mercy Rule/Frontier Trust split 7-inch release show. Tre and his wife are the last bastions of the ’90s punk-rock scene in Omaha, living reminders of The Capitol Bar and Grill, looking and acting no different than they did back in the day. The Brothers, however, is no Capitol, and has no intention of every being The Capitol. Instead, it’s your typical laid-back hang-out lounge, with the best jukebox in town and a permanent odor that’s a combination of smoke, sweat, piss, spilled drinks and bathroom cleaner — i.e., it smells like an old lounge. It’s a far cry from a live music venue, and when this show was first announced, with Bill Hoover and Ted Stevens/Mayday opening, I figured it would be uncomfortably crowded, smoky with spotty sound.
In fact, it wasn’t that crowded at all. I found some friends hanging out back by the pool table and leaned against it all night, providing a perfect view of the pseudo stage set up in the far back corner beneath the dart board. I got there just in time to see Hoover’s last couple songs (I missed Mayday completely). Hoover is sporting a rock band these days, with Lincoln Dickison (The Monroes) on guitar, and they’re pretty good. I have no idea what he’s going to do with it; if it was a one-off thing or a new project. Afterward, the drumset was dismantled and the area cleared for Frontier Trust, which was really Half Trust, featuring only Gary Dean Davis and Bill Thornton. No bass player, and our man Double Joe shacked up somewhere in Portland (though he apparently called in and heard part of the set via a held-up cell phone).
The weird, funny thing about it was that Gary didn’t sound or look any different than he did a decade ago; he still has that same off-pitch bellow which he yells into a microphone gripped like he’s strangling a bunny, yelling right in its frightened, furry face words about politics, unemployment, girls, swimming holes and race cars. A slightly shaggy Thornton hadn’t changed much either, sporting the same walkabout stroll as he peddled his axe with a smile. It was easily the longest Frontier Trust set I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seem more than my share over the years). Davis and Thornton dipped into their full body of work, from all the singles off One Hour, Caufield, and Faye, as well as the full-length (including everyone’s favorite, the one about the swimming hole). The crowd ate it up.
Although it goes without saying (but I know there are a few out there who haven’t heard Frontier Trust before), Davis’ current incarnation, The Monroes, is a natural progression from the Frontier Trust days, just like Frontier Trust was taken from the loins of Pioneer Disaster. That said, if you own a Monroes CD you’d be well-served to pick up the new split, available at Antiquarium, Drastic and probably Homer’s.
Mercy Rule didn’t get started until 12:30, probably because they had to set up those famous floor lights that became their trademark “stage look” throughout the years. For this gig, it was only Heidi Ore and Jon Taylor. As Heidi explained from the microphone, “Ron is in New York, where he’s making money, has a girlfriend and has a band.” That comment was met with plenty of whoops and laughter. The time machine has been good to Heidi and Jon. Heidi looks like she just walked off the stage at Harry Mary’s circa 1993, Jon’s put on a few pounds but carries it with vigor, looking like a farmdad with his crewcut and nerd glasses.
You have to remember why Mercy Rule was so important to everyone in Omaha and Lincoln back in the ’90s. Along with Frontier Trust, and a few other bands like mousetrap and Ritual Device, they were doing the impossible; they were putting out music that was uniquely theirs, and doing it on a national label — Relativity — and performing it all over the country. I always thought they were going to be the next break-out act from the Midwest because their songs were so powerful, yet personal. The trick to Mercy Rule’s music was the combination of guitar angst, Albertson’s hard-fisted drumming all offset by Heidi’s throaty girlie voice singing lyrics that were personal but not necessarily confessional. They were anthems to individuality, love songs about hope that any schmuck could understand and identify with, without a sticky layer of sentimentality or treacle. The fact that Relativity screwed them didn’t stop them from putting out a career-topping LP, The Flat Black Chronicles, on Caulfield. After that, they could move on, comforted in the fact that they created a masterwork that stands as an icon to mid-90s Nebraska music and as good as anything released nationally at the time.
Seeing them on stage again was a thrill for everyone there. Oh sure, it was great to see Gary and Bill playing the old favorites again, but Mercy Rule… well, it may never happen again. Heidi and Jon’s lives have moved in a direction where rock and roll is only an interesting tangent, a direction that they’ve chosen even though they still have the chops and voice to make a go at it again if they wanted to. Heidi never sounded better, and Jon was in his usual maniacal form, his guitar slung to his knees, bent over, chopping like a steam locomotive pushrod in full throttle.
The set lasted until around 1:30. They played songs off Flat Black, God Protects Fools, Providence and the singles. It was fun, though Ron was sorely missed. I never realized just how much he adds to these songs, and now realize why no one could ever replace him. Their track on the split single, “Don’t Let It Go,” is a real treasure, among the better songs from their oeuvre, pure pop-punk with huge, chiming guitars, a great mid-song break featuring Jon and Ron, and Heidi belting out the line “Never let it walk out the door / Never let it leave your life.” A fitting message for what will likely be the last song they’ll ever release.
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