Column 292: Rock of Ages
Live reviews of Ra Ra Riot, The Sons of…
by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
I’ve never bought into the whole idea that age has anything to do with enjoying rock music, and I still don’t, but the question did come up this past weekend.
I waded into the crowd of suburban youth at The Waiting Room Friday night too late to see either of the opening bands, thanks to the Yankees. I considered skipping the show altogether because it was already 11, but I was on the list and I figured why not? While I’d heard of Ra Ra Riot — the headliner — they’d always slipped under my radar. I knew that they’d been in the College Music Journal top-20 shortly after their Barsuk release hit the streets. I’d read their description at allmusic.com, where their style was described as “chamber pop,” probably because the band employs a violinist and cello player, both young women.
Upon entering the club, there they were like a pair of gorgeous bookends standing on opposite sides of the crowded stage, divided by RRR’s shaggy frontman who leaned forward on the microphone in front of a mob scene down below. The show wasn’t a sell out, but it was handsomely attended, again by more women than men — a trend that’s becoming familiar for indie shows these days.
So I stood back by the soundboard with my Rolling Rock and tried to lock in, but couldn’t. Other than those strings, the six-piece didn’t sound much different than any of the crop of hot indie pop bands currently burning up the CMJ charts — Vampire Weekend, Tokyo Police Club, Yeasayer, even Local Natives, a band who played a sold-out show at TWR a week earlier.
Outside the venue on the sidewalk along Maple Street a fan tried to convince me that Ra Ra Riot was different than all those other bands, that there was something special in their melodies that set them apart from the herd. I listened quietly, and then told him that as much as I respected his opinion, he was wrong. I said RRR was just another kick-drum-fueled open-chord pop act trying to skirt the border between indie rock and dorm-room dance music, and while that was all perfectly fine, nothing stood out about the band’s music, no lyric or melody was memorable, and that I was getting tired of hearing the same old song that I’d been hearing by all these bands for the past two years.
And then the question came up: Was I turning into one of those “back in my day” old guys who couldn’t get with the latest sound?
In my dismay, I mentioned this to one of the 20-something regulars at O’Leaver’s the following night. “Yes, you’re getting old,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that Ra Ra Riot doesn’t suck.” He then went on to admonish me for not having been at The 49’r the night before to hear the band I was about to hear.
O’Leaver’s is a tiny club compared to TWR, and when it’s packed, it feels even tinier. Saturday night the drunken throng pushed out the door into the concrete beer garden, there to see the reunion of The Sons of O’Leaver’s (the night before, they were The Sons of The 49’r), a local band that made its mark in the early part of the last decade. The band features some of the city’s most notable musicians: Frontman Kelly Maxwell and drummer Mike Loftus, who had been in 60-Watt Saloon, Shovelhead, and Hong Hyn Corp, which is a band that included guitarist/vocalist Matt Rutledge, who had been in Compost, Miss Lonely Hearts, Holiday and The Great Dismal, which is a band that included bass player Mike Tulis, who is known for his work in Full Blown, The Monroes and The Third Men.
In other words, The Sons of… is a veterans’ club made that much more venerable that night by the addition of Omaha expatriate Mike Jaworski (Hello from Waveland, The Cops), who was in town from Seattle. Dressed to the nines in formal suits and ties, the band took to the area that O’Leaver’s calls a stage and ripped through an hour of gritty rock that bordered on punk. It was just what I had been thirsting for after the past few weeks of indie rock pabulum. I could have listened to it all night.
But didn’t this underscore the whole “old guy” argument? The Sons of… music clearly is a reflection of a by-gone era — a sort of homage to ’90s “college rock” (the phrase used before the term “indie” came into vogue) played by a bunch of guys in their 30s.
I stood back by the sound board with my Rolling Rock and looked over a crowd that was as locked in as I was — a crowd whose age spanned from 21 to 50+. After the smoke cleared, Little Brazil took the stage, a band as modern as any you’ll likely hear on Sirius XMU, but with a sound not that far removed from the band I just heard.
And I realized that I knew the answer. Some new stuff will never jive with me. On the other hand, I’ve been digging the new CDs by Pete Yorn, Land of Talk and Deerhunter. While Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Ke$ha will always be greasy kids stuff. Rock music isn’t always universal; it doesn’t always span the ages, but in the end, the only person who can tell you if you’re too old to listen to it is you.
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I didn’t see many familiar faces last night at Slowdown for Guster. And I didn’t expect to, either. Regardless, the show sold out, and the big room was filled with hard-core Guster fans who sang along with the band throughout the evening. Performing as a five-piece, Guster’s usual trio had a second drummer and a second guitarist in tow. Overall, they sounded very good playing a broad selection of songs from all their albums, and making note whenever they played a new one. I know frontman Ryan Miller thinks their new record is a bold, new direction, but the songs fit into the rest of the Guster canon seamlessly, and could have come off any of the older records. Miller had good between-song shtick, talking directly to a few members of the crowd, including one poor person who said they saw him at dinner. His response: “I took a really good sh** today, too.” Hopefully, the poor patron wasn’t around for that.
In the end, it was a somewhat flat set by a band with lots of catchy songs that tend to blend into each other after an hour, which was when I reached my threshold. They seemed to be doing the set “by the numbers,” walking through the songs as if they’d been on the road for six months straight instead of just a few weeks — a general lack of enthusiasm from a band that’s been playing the same style of music for nearly 20 years. The performance, specifically from Miller, looked more like a chore than a spectacle.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2010 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.