by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
I’m surprised to this day, 20 years after they were really a band, that Ritual Device continues to divide the music community.
On one hand, you have those who think the band not only was the ultimate product of Nebraska during its day in the ’90s, but think Tim Moss and Co. may be the best band that ever emerged from the Good Life State. I was told last night that people had made exoduses to The Waiting Room from as far away as Minneapolis and, of course, Kansas City, where Ritual Device played often back in its heyday. I even traveled down I-29 one summer in the ’90s and saw them tear apart a used record store somewhere on the edge of Westport. Unlike local bands today who seem to play every weekend for reasons I’ll never understand, Ritual Device shows were something of a rarity back then. I can remember the band playing only a few times in Omaha, usually at The Capitol Bar & Grill. So rare were their shows that they became events.
On the other hand, there are those who never “got” Ritual Device, who felt they were a “performance thing” or a gimmick, Tim Moss being little more than a circus geek who instead of biting heads off live chickens showered his crowds with pig ears and other raw meats, a demented circus barker tied up in microphone chord, spitting vitriol and mucus into an adoring crowd that could never get enough of either. I talked to a half-dozen people inside and outside the club last night who planned on leaving after Cellophane Ceiling’s set. Strike that — there were a few who wanted to see “what the fuss was all about,” who could barely remember Ritual Device in their later years but never bothered to see them at The Capitol or wherever they were playing.
I have never been on the fence when it came to the band. Those who malign Moss have their reasons — either they were turned off by the violence of the songs or the crowd that followed them. So be it. But even the most cynical who viewed the band as “an act,” who also have a modicum of interest in punk or metal, have to acknowledge the band’s talent. Strip away Moss’s histrionics and you still have some of the most memorable rhythms and riffs from an era in Nebraska music defined by rhythms and riffs. Mike Saklar was — and is — a top-notch guitarist; Jerry Hug, a genuine groove master, and then there was the preppy-looking guy behind the kit, the secret engine that made the band what it was on stage and on recordings — Eric Ebers — who gets lost in the conversation even though his throbbing drumming is the guidepost to every Ritual Device song.
Anyway… We got there early last night because Teresa didn’t want to stand up for three hours, and we weren’t alone. At 8:15 p.m., an hour and 15 minutes before any band would take the stage, all the tables already were taken by folks who looked older than me, all apparently with the same idea of finding a place to sit down for what would be a long night. Like a bloodhound Teresa found two stools along the ledge 10 feet from the soundboard squeezed behind a table of people that was a mix of biker-looking dudes and their soccer-mom wives. All around us were late-middle-aged couples and overweight guys in 20-year-old concert T-shirts. It didn’t so much seem like a wedding reception as a reunion of retired Hell’s Angels who long ago threw away their leathers.
Nightbird didn’t make it on stage until 9:30. By then the entire back end of the club was a mass of boozed up AARP members who clearly were not prepared for what they were about to hear. Nightbird is a stoner-rock band in the Sabbath / Sleep vein, maybe not that plodding but certainly not exactly an uplifting listen. As frontman Lee Meyerpeter ripped into the first song, backed by bassist Jeff Harder and drummer Scott “Zip” Zimmerman I leaned over and yelled into Teresa’s ear, “This one will last 20 minutes.” The set? she asked. No, the song.
And sure enough, it did — 20 minutes of exquisite, plodding, riffage broken into stanzas and brazen guitar solos and Meyerpeter’s raspy, guttural vocals that recalled Kurt Cobain if Cobain could hold a note without shrieking. Nightbird’s debut last July at The Sydney was hit and miss, almost experimental in its take on stoner rock. Last night they sounded like a stadium stone-metal band thanks to The Waiting Room’s far superior sound system and five months’ worth of gigs that honed their sound.
That first 20-minute song was followed by a second, pushed along in the same plodding, stoner pace. And then Meyerpeter welcomed former Cactus Nerve Thang drummer Pat Dieteman to the stage to join the band on some Cactus numbers for what would be a two-thirds reunion. Original CNT bassist Brian Poloncic apparently has hung up his bass for good, refusing to step away even for one night from his current life as a fine artist and author (btw, a large Poloncic print hangs proudly on the wall in Teresa’s home office).
No matter, Harder handled the bass and Dieteman joined in on guitar and vocals for a handful of CNT songs including “High” and “Sunshine” off their infamous Sloth CD recorded in ’93 at Junior’s Hotel in Otho, Iowa, and released on Grass Records. I’d forgotten how many good songs were on that record. The band sounded better than the last time I saw them play, which I think was on a sun-drenched deck outside Sharkey’s for a one-day music festival sometime in the mid-90s.
Meyerpeter is something of a sonic chameleon. I’ve now heard him play in punk, country, heavy-metal, post-punk and now stoner rock bands. He is one of the more versatile and prodigious musicians and songwriters Nebraska has produced in the past 20 years. I was told one of his electric guitars – one he played with Cactus Nerve Thang 20-odd years ago – was being retired after last night’s show, to be displayed in The Reverb Lounge “until they find something better to hang up there” — though I can’t imagine what that would be.
Next up was the main attraction for a large part of the audience, the reunion of Cellophane Ceiling. I scoured my memory for the last time I saw the band. During the interview a week or so ago, I mentioned to frontman John Wolf that it was probably at The 49’r and he just shook his head. “We rarely played there,” he said. “You’re probably thinking of Bad Luck Charm.” At one point BLC, a band that also included Meyerpeter, was practically the house band at The 49’r, playing there what seemed like every weekend. If I had seen Cellophane it was probably at the Howard Street Tavern or maybe the Capitol, two other long-lost bars in the annuls of Omaha music history.
I also have no copies of Cellophane recordings. It appears the band pre-dates my interest in Omaha music, and when Wolf and his band took the stage, the only song I recognized was the single “Don’t Play God,” and only because the video on YouTube. But there was a familiar quality to Cellophane’s music that would pop up in Bad Luck Charm and, with the heavier numbers, could be traced as influences to Ritual Device.
What makes Cellophane stand out from the rest of the late-’80s early-’90s punk rock bands is Wolf’s vocals, which have a sort of trucker slur to their delivery, almost a forced, ironic twang as if to say “We’re hicks from Nebraska, you got a problem with that?” It’s a style that would live on in BLC.
Wolf is anything but a hick. He looks, sings and plays exactly as I remember him in BLC. One old Cellophane fan told me his guitar work sounded better than it did back in the day. An ageless precision attached to an ageless rock fury. But maybe not ageless after all. Wolf displayed evidence of his age in the form of his 14-year-old son who joined the band on a half-dozen songs, looking like a well-dressed young punk in his shirt and tie, and more than able to keep up with his old man.
Why Wolf isn’t in a band these days, I do not know. Maybe his life and his family and job keep him too busy to play in bands on the weekends. It’s our loss.
Finally, Ritual Device. Tim Moss climbed on stage in an untucked long-sleeved dress shirt, jeans, boots and a ZZ Top-style beard, ready for action. Maybe not ZZ Top. Moss with beard looks more like an R Crumb comic-book hippie, a middle-aged San Francisco Mr. Natural but with shoulder-length hair, neither foreboding nor threatening as he briskly strolled around the stage pulling microphone cords in various directions, grabbing the front stage mic and announcing, “We’re Ritual Device from Omaha, Nebraska” as the band kicked into the first number.
I had pushed my way up toward the front, near stage right, just a dozen steps from what would turn into a pseudo mosh pit and launching pad for Moss’s relentless stage dives that were more like stage lurches, leaning forward onto extended hands that pulled him into and above the crowd while he continued to speak-howl lyrics about serial killers and bizarre sex. Midway through the first melee the older and more timid members of the crowd began peeling off and heading toward the sides or back to their tables with frightened smiles pressed on their faces.
Moss’s stage thing hasn’t changed at all in 20 years. He continuously lurched at the crowd as if begging them to hurt him before he hurts himself… or them. During the second song he pulled out a brown paper grocery sack and began flinging raw pigs ears into the crowd; fans either kept them as souvenirs or threw them back at the stage — all except one Manson-esque looking dude who leaned against center-stage shaking a pig’s ear in his teeth, wagging it at the band.
The rest of the guys looked down at their instruments and smiled while old man Moss continued to get groped in the crowd. Saklar, urban chic in black dress shirt, leaned over his Fender in focused concentration while across the stage was Hug, dressed in a black T-shirt looking like a cross between a fitness instructor and hip Loyola English Lit professor as he shredded his bass. Behind them was the ageless Ebers dominating the sonic landscape with relentless, frenetic yet precise drumming — drumming that, when combined with the riffs and breaks and Moss’s insane mumble-howl, created the tense energy that defines this ageless band.
Ritual Device is indeed the band that time forgot, except of course for Moss, whose crazy beard and shoulder-length Jesus hair has turned him into an angry, crazy grandpa complete with weird, black tiger-stripe tattoos up and down his forearms. Even when he was a clean-shaven lad in the ’90s there was something sinister about his stage presence, a far cry from the person he is in real life.
For those keeping score, the band played all the favorites including “Charlie Jones” and “What You Got.” They did, indeed, sound as good as I remembered them sounding 15 or 20 years ago. And while the frenzy in the middle of the crowd continued until the end, it never got out of hand. There are few modern-day local (or national) bands that bring the level of energy to the performance that Moss does (The closest that comes to mind for sheer weird chaos is probably Worried Mothers).
Reunion shows are precarious things. By their very nature they distort fans’ memories of who the bands were and what they sounded like the last time they played, which may have been decades ago. The risk is that whatever climbs on stage will be a weaker, sloppier and obviously older version of their former selves. That was not the case last night. All the bands did their legacies proud.
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Last minute reminder about tonight’s Good Life show at The Waiting Room. It’ll be butting up against the Huskers playing in the Whatever Bowl, so who knows what kind of crowd will be there. Opening is Oquoa and Big Harp. $13, 9 p.m.
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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 © 2014 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.