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Predicting and recapping the annual rock faceoffby Brett Milano
Even if I'm wrong, tonight's (Thursday's) final caps the most entertaining Rumble in years, one that did the job of representing the best of the entry-level local scene. Which has not by any means been a given in recent years (especially not last year). Never averse to patting itself on the back, WBCN can afford to do so this year after a well-attended stretch of semifinals -- two nights (May 17 and 18) that hit most of the major trends in town, even if the proportions were a little surprising. Of the eight semifinalists, there was one ska band (Skavoovie & the Epitones), one weird/alternative band (Turkish Delight), two loud bands (Jocobono and Quintaine Americana), and a whopping four pop bands (Trona, Red Telephone, Gravel Pit, and Jules Verdone).
The semis set up some intriguing scenarios. Would the final come down to a contest between Trona and Gravel Pit, two bands who largely share the same audience? Would Jocobono's Billy O'Malley, late of Seka/Strip Mind, win the Rumble a second time? Would bassist Ed Valauskas, who plays in both Gravel Pit and Verdone's band, wind up competing against himself? Or would it be a face-off between two former Orangutang members, Trona frontman Chris Dyas and Jocobono drummer Todd Perlmutter? In the end, the semis came out with one of the more surprising upsets in Rumble history.
That would be the second night, which was near-universally considered to be a showdown between Jocobono and Gravel Pit. Both bands came with a large built-in audience; both apparently played the sets of their lives in the preliminaries (I missed Jocobono's preliminary set but can attest that Gravel Pit excelled). Closing the night, Quintaine Americana offered a coiled and twisted set -- fueled, perhaps, by their frustration at being such a longshot -- and wound up stealing it from the favorites.
Of the apparent front-runners, Gravel Pit played the single best Rumble set I saw this year in the preliminaries. The band's loud garage/pop streak usually competes with their more experimental tendencies, but in the preliminaries they skipped the preamble and rocked hard from start to finish. The highpoints of their Manifesto (Q Division) album ("New Haven," "Officer Dwight Boyd") were also the peaks of the set, but there wasn't a bad song in the batch. In their semifinal they took a different tack and emphasized their more left-field material, including the long and slow "Time To Leave the Cradle" and a new song, apparently about the Salem witch trials, done in ominous waltz time. This more experimental set spoke well for Gravel Pit's diversity, prompted one judge (Mercury Records staffer Jim Fouratt) to compare them to Pere Ubu, and confirmed their standing as one of my current favorite local bands. But it may also have cost them the night.
Although apparently not as strong as their preliminary showing, Jocobono's set in the semi was no slouch. Aside from their cutting a striking figure in cocktail dresses, what sets Jocobono apart from other metal-ish bands in town is their ability to mix things up. Within a half-hour they got into dark metal, catchy '70s-ish hard rock, fusion-esque breaks, and post-Nirvana rock, keeping the volume up without lodging into one groove for too long. And it doesn't hurt that the band members are interesting players, with O'Malley doing long solos that were worth following while Perlmutter and bassist Mike Welsh pulled off some clever rhythmic twists. To these ears, those dynamics were missing in Quintaine Americana's set, which took the Jesus Lizard tack of pummeling the listener senseless -- good enough, but that's been done a lot lately. One of the band's drawing points is a twisted heartland sensibility that fits their name (which I take to be a pun of a certain film director's name -- Quentin's Americana, anyone?). But it becomes irrelevant in a setting where you can't make out the lyrics.
Turkish Delight opened the night with the quirkiest set of the semis. The band mine the confrontational avant-punk territory staked out by the likes of the Bush Tetras, Au Pairs, and Wire, and they show a playful streak at the darnedest times -- note singer Leah Callahan's habit of grinning and passing out party favors when the group lock into their most ominous riffs. At this point the band's sound is still better than their writing -- a couple of tunes took the easy road into pure noise -- but in the category of "female-fronted bands with a clear-cut Wire influence," they're a damn sight more interesting than Elastica.
The opening night of the semis was largely a battle of the pop bands, with the single exception of Skavoovie & the Epitones -- who seemed an unlikely choice to represent local ska (where were the Allstonians?) but were the brightest surprise of the night. Modeled somewhat after the Skatalites, they're a largely instrumental band who put horn-driven workouts atop that beat. Even their obligatory trashing of a classic-rock chestnut (Kiss's "Rock 'n' Roll All Night") worked because the song fit into the groove they were laying down, and because they moved onto something else after one verse -- and if that sounds like an obvious cover, the Cab Calloway song they played next sure wasn't. Funny to note, however, that whereas the ska community espouses peace and tolerance, Skavoovie's fans caused the Rumble's only disturbances by heckling Trona and booing when the results were announced.
Another surprise was the Red Telephone, a band I caught for the first time in the preliminaries, who write old-fashioned pop songs but deliver them in a harsher, alterna-rock style. They don't have a full set of strong material yet, but there's a clear standout in "Everything Changes"-- a number that starts out as a reprimand to an angst-ridden friend but turns into a reassuring pep talk, with a tune that appropriately turns from jagged chords to uplifting hook.
Jules Verdone took a lower-key route, even plugging Trona a few times and noting that she once flew from Baltimore to Boston just to see an Orangutang show. Although she comes off a tad self-effacing on stage -- probably because she's reluctant to play the sex-appeal card -- she's writing terrific songs that acknowledge the complexity of adult relationships, and singing them in a grabbing, unforced voice. Verdone was writing good lyrics before she wrote good hooks, but nowadays her songs have an equal mix of cheap thrills and depth.
Trona have likewise made a few changes for the better. Whereas co-singer/guitarist Mary Ellen Leahy used to be shy about doing much of anything on stage, she now shares lead vocals on songs that Chris Dyas used to sing solo; she even plays some lead guitar when Dyas switches to acoustic. The band have also taken on a harder edge after a year of regular gigs. Although they're still fairly genteel by Orangutang standards, they're not afraid of loud guitars when a song calls for them. It was a night for songs, however, and Trona had clear standouts in "Red Hot Slag," which takes on the overused target of tabloid press with smarts and wit, and "Poor Violet," a neo-psychedelic gem that ran through my head for days afterward. That song may well be the one that wins (won?) them the Rumble.
COMING UP. Bee Charmers play Johnny D's tonight; neo-proggers Xixxo are at the Rat, Jeff & Jane Hudson are at the Phoenix Landing, pianist David Maxwell holds court at the House of Blues, and Resolve play T.T. the Bear's Place . . . It's surf night at Club Bohemia tomorrow (Friday) with the Strangemen, Surficide, and Ray Corvair. Meanwhile, John Felice brings his bitchin' new Devotions to the Linwod, 6L6 hit Mama Kin, Opium Den make a rare appearance at T.T.'s, and last year's Rumble runners-up, Pooka Stew, have a CD-release party at the Rat.
Kevin Salem introduces his new album at Mama Kin Saturday with the Courage Brothers and Jules Verdone; Powerman 5000 are at the Rat. And Peter Wolf plays his first official gig to support his new album downstairs at the Middle East, while the Swirlies are introducing their own new stuff upstairs. Meanwhile, ex-Swirlie Seana Carmody's new band, Syrup, play T.T.'s with Cake Like . . . Skavoovie play the Rat Sunday; Stereolab are at Mama Kin and white-trashers Southern Culture on the Skids play the Middle East . . . The latest incarnation of '70s funksters War hits the Middle East on Tuesday; Shoemaker (featuring former Big Dipper drummer Jeff Oliphant) come to Bill's Bar . . . Grind play Axis Wednesday, and Mark Eitzel is at the Paradise.
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