Live Review: Ted Stevens Unknown Project, Miniature Horse, McCarthy Trenching…

Ted Stevens Unknown Project at Reverb Lounge, Jan. 15, 2015.

Ted Stevens Unknown Project at Reverb Lounge, Jan. 15, 2015.

by Tim McMahan,

Big draw Saturday night for Ted Stevens Unknown Project at Reverb Lounge in Benson, though almost no one was there when I dropped in at 9 p.m. As much as I like Ted and his crew, I wanted to see Miniature Horse a.k.a. Rachel Tomlinson Dick, who I’d seen a few months ago at an afternoon concert at Almost Music and couldn’t believe my ears.

Miniature Horse at Reverb Lounge, Jan. 17, 2015.

Miniature Horse at Reverb Lounge, Jan. 17, 2015.

Namewise, why Miniature Horse instead of RTD? Who knows. She didn’t say from stage what the name meant. Miniature horses are cute little creatures that have been known to take a chunk out of the back of a child’s head or crush a passerby’s kneecap whether provoked or not. No one knows what goes through the creatures’ minds other than somber bitterness and/or barely contained rage over being born a diminutive reflection of their more regal brethren. It’s only a matter of time before that rage boils over into a reflex motion that requires surgery and long-term rehabilitation to an unfortunate passerby.

I don’t think that’s what RTD had in mind when she came up with the name, though there is a “beauty and the beast” style to her one-woman show, brought to you by her amazing voice (one of the best singers in town) and her effects pedals that alter her guitar’s tone from quiet reflection to Neil Young feedback blaze with a tap of her toe. Consider her our own version of Polly Jean Harvey circa her 4-Track Demos phase. An intricate finger-picking style had a couple of the guys next to me (there were only guys in the crowd early in the evening) staring in awe. One of them wondered what her songs would sound like with a full band, and I wondered, too, but would be afraid the added instruments could clutter up the solitary majesty. Maybe a simple trio, though RTD is doing fine by her lonesome, standing like her namesake on an empty stage.

McCarthy Trenching at Reverb Lounge, Jan. 17, 2015.

McCarthy Trenching at Reverb Lounge, Jan. 17, 2015.

Next up was the string-band version of McCarthy Trenching. Dan McCarthy is known as a piano man by a lot of people who have only seen his early-evening weekly gigs at Pageturners, but he’s just as comfortable with a guitar hanging ’round his neck, backed by talented upright bass player James Maakestad. McCarthy rolled through a set that included familiar chestnuts (the one about kicking a ball through the Cathedral uprights; another about being a self-employed, self-hating lout) as well as new songs (including one that perfectly captures my seething road rage).

McCarthy balances a forlorn loneliness with humor and a knack for capturing every-day details lyrically I haven’t heard since John Darnielle, though musically Trenching songs in no way resemble Mountain Goats songs. When played on piano, they more closely resemble Randy Newman tunes, and I would recommend McCarthy Trenching albums to anyone who loves Newman’s solo piano songs.

McCarthy said he wants to enter the studio again. We’re all waiting, Dan.

By the time Ted Stevens and his all-star band rolled onto the Reverb stage the lounge was a jam-packed calamity of fans and fellow musicians come to pay homage to the guy behind Lullaby for the Working Class and Mayday, and who, by the way, also plays and writes for Cursive. Backing Stevens as the Unknown Project is Lincoln Dickison (Putrescine, Monroes) on electric guitar, Ian Aeillo (Eli Mardock, Eagle*Seagull) on bass and David Ozinga (UUVVWWWZ) on drums.

Stevens’ songwriting is like no one else’s around here. It’s linear, without the usual chorus and verse structure, more like a stream of conscious telling of his life backed by an indie version of Crazy Horse. The closest resemblance to Stevens’ music (to me) is American Music Club/Mark Eitzel, which has a similar foreboding sense of chaotic ennui. There is a darkness to his music, a sense of stark anxiety like we’re getting a look inside what drives Stevens’ life, a sense of uneasiness accented by a voice that sounds like a hand outstretched to something just out of reach. Gorgeous stuff

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — 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 © 2015 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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