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[Cellars]

Garageland
Mr. Airplane Man soup up their blues

BY CARLY CARIOLI

It’s hard to say which sounds cruddier: the album Mr. Airplane Man made last winter on a four-track in their practice space, or the one they made last summer in Memphis with blues-punk grandpappy Monsieur Jeffrey Evans (Gibson Bros., Workdogs, ’68 Comeback), who is renowned for getting sounds out of his home studio that most engineering professionals would be hard pressed to strangle out of a water-logged trash-picked transistor radio. The former disc, The Primitive, was a self-released job, with hand-drawn, Kinko’s-copied artwork; the latter, Red Lite, is about to be released on the world’s greatest garage-punk label, Sympathy for the Record Industry, and its cover art only appears to have been photocopied at Kinko’s. The two discs have five songs in common. To an ear unfamiliar with the nuances of lo-fi garage stomp, the two versions can seem indistinguishable. If you hear an untethered guitar solo squeal in through the back door at astounding volume and chase the rest of the song up through the attic or you encounter a sudden blurt of speaker-frying feedback — in other words, if you hear something that reminds you of the Velvets’ White Light/White Heat (like the brief instrumental “A Small Child Fell into a Well”) or the Stooges’ Fun House — chances are it’s Red Lite.

Both discs, and the Sympathy disc in particular, are major developments for a band who, a little over a year ago, were known best as a couple of white girls — singer/guitarist Margaret Garrett and drummer Tara McManus — from Boston with an intuitive knack for playing a hypnotic stretch of Fat Possum–style Mississippi hill-country blues. Talk to them now and the old Mick Jagger quote about the early Stones — “I hope no one thinks we’re a rock-and-roll band” — comes to mind, only in reverse. They’ll learn you quick: don’t nobody go calling Mr. Airplane Man a blues band no more. Garrett has mostly shelved her bottleneck slide, a half-dozen songs on the new album add bass and second guitar, and there’s a good bit of Gories/Demolition Doll Rods/Oblivians–style grime. No doubt about it: they’re a rock-and-roll band now.

“We’re not doing straight-ahead blues stuff,” says Garrett over barbecue at the Linwood Grille. “Not that we were ever really playing straight-ahead blues. I’ve been influenced by Triple Thick and the Lyres lately, it’s spun me in a different direction, and I wanna do more full-sounding stuff. I kind of reached a point last fall where I just couldn’t play the same songs the same way over and over again anymore. It’s not like I’m planning anything, but I’m not the same person as I was, and I don’t think the band sounds the same.”

Sure, they’ve been covering the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” since their days playing outside liquor stores in Central Square. Back then it was a way to bait (in both senses of the word) punk-rock kids, and their arrangement made explicit a connection between the slashing two-chord slide guitar of Mississippi Fred McDowell and the Stooges’ murderously primitive assault. But the version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” that appears on Red Lite is something different: the connection between blues and punk is still close at hand, but there’s also a savagery beyond the easy reach of either one, a kind of brute trauma that you hear in the two best versions of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” ever recorded, those being Iggy’s original and the one Kim Gordon did with Sonic Youth.

At other times on Red Lite, the girls sound just as good — if not better — at capturing the haunted-spiritual feel of the rural blues idioms for which they first became known. Their version of Jesse May Hemphill’s “Black Cat Bone” might be their finest blues recording yet: its clipped vocal and slide phrases echo from some lost grave-type place, and the tinny, scratched quality of the recording gives it the feel of an old 78. And Garrett’s “All Alone” and “Blue As I Can Be” are among her finest Delta-drone compositions.

“I’m so happy we’re on Sympathy,” gushes McManus. “That’s really where we belong. It’s like, once you get known as a blues band, you can’t get out of it, you’re stuck there, you end up playing with Susan Tedeschi or whatever, and everyone stares at you really awkwardly, there’s like three girls who’re going ‘Yeah!’ and everyone else is like, ‘What?’, y’know, and it just kinda sucks. And I never go to shows like that, and the bottom line is I think there was this great misunderstanding — and maybe that’s just typical of this area or I don’t know — but as soon as we got to Memphis, it was like, ‘Oh, wait, we’re not the only ones!’ Like, we love Jesse May Hemphill and Howlin’ Wolf, but so do all these other bands, there’s a history of that in Memphis. It’s like it doesn’t matter if you’re a blues band or a rock band, there’s a certain feel they all have from Memphis, I love it, it’s so great. It’s kinda sloppy but so on at the same time, very simple but driving. So cool.”

The Memphis influence comes in loud and clear, especially the wing that includes the Oblivians and ’68 Comeback, who are part of the seamy Memphis that’s still deeply immersed in the city’s living history of raucous rhythm and blues. During a tour last summer, the duo stopped off in Memphis to kill a couple of days before heading onto a gig in New Orleans; at a pizza shop they happened upon Shawn Cripps, who offered them a floor to sleep on, then kept them up all night playing records and ended up playing bass. “Sean knew Jeff,” says Garrett, “and he got Jeff to give us a show. It all happened really fast.”

“Then Jeff shows up in a three-piece suit and a bowler hat and his hair in these two long braids,” says McManus. “It was so insane.”

By the time they got back to Memphis from their New Orleans gig, their new Memphis friends had arranged gigs, parties, and a three-day recording session — at Tillman Audio Research, better known as Evans’s living room, where a shrine to Charlie Feathers watches over all — during which they recorded most of Red Lite.

“What was really amazing was that [before we left for Memphis] I had never heard ’68 Comeback,” says Garrett. “And our friend Mitch from Triple Thick made us a road-trip tape that was phenomenal, and he put a ’68 Comeback song on it. And I was like, ‘Who the hell is this? This is amazing!’ And then when we got to Memphis, Sean kept us up all night spinning records for us. And I just fell in love with ’68 Comeback, and before I know it we meet Jeff Evans and he wants to produce us, and then to top it off, the guitar player on that second record [’68 Comeback’s A Bridge Too Fuckin’ Far, on Sympathy] — I couldn’t believe how incredible he was — it was Nick Diablo, who’s Jeff Evans’s neighbor, and [Diablo] ended up walking in and hopping on some songs. It was a dream living itself out. It was really quite perfect.”

It gets better: Evans has also hooked up the Airplane ladies with a leg of a tour by the last band he brought to Sympathy — Detroit’s buzzed-about rhythm-and-blues duo the White Stripes. Look for the bill to hit the Middle East on June 21. In the meantime, Mr. Airplane Man celebrate the release of Red Lite this Friday night at the Abbey Lounge with the Konks and Triple Thick.

GARAGE PUNK HAS BEEN WAITING almost 30 years for a frontperson like Lisa Kekaula — in fact, it’s been so long since a credible rock-and-roll band were fronted by a black woman (Skunk Anansie never, ever counted) that people have been reaching back to Tina Turner for comparisons. Kekaula is no Tina, but she is a soul singer, and a first-rate one at that. And as you might expect, her robust voice, which retains a good bit of gospel fire, is in high demand. She’s the centerpiece on a new album by a group called the Now Time Delegation, Watch for Today (In the Red), on which an all-star cast — headed up by lo-fi trash-punk innovator Tim Kerr — runs through songs by Eddie Floyd, Curtis Mayfield, and the Flirtations plus the Texas State University Tornados’ instrumental funk obscurity “Getting the Corners.” The setting — tinny guitars, organ vamps — gives Kekaula’s singing more room and a better view than she’s allowed in her main band, the BellRays, who are big MC5 fans. Or at least it’s safe to say the BellRays mimic the basic MC5 dynamic: a pretty good ’70s heavy-metal band tripping over themselves trying to keep up with an even better politically minded soul singer.

The BellRays made a stop at the Linwood last year and by all reports brought the house down; I’ve regretted missing ’em ever since. Fortunately, they’re back playing the Middle East this Saturday with the Fleshtones and — you guessed it — Mr. Airplane Man.

THE LINER NOTES TO the new Blood for Blood album Wasted Youth Brew (Victory) — a posthumous release compiling live sides and outtakes that was released last Tuesday — makes reference to the impetus its members had for starting their irascible hardcore band: “So our friends could have an excuse to beat up Allston scenesters at the Rat.” Which seemed slightly less funny last week, since B4B were affiliated with the notorious hardcore posse FSU, a group alleged to have started a melee at the Middle East on April 20 that resulted in at least one stabbing. (In an e-mail sent to reporters and others on April 21, promoter Tim Lindberg attributed those allegations to unnamed sources at the Middle East.)

The good news is that former B4B guitarist “White Trash Rob” Lind — along with his brother Mark from the Ducky Boys — finally has a band worth getting stabbed for. They’re called Sinners & Saints, and they’ve already undergone their first line-up change: guitarist Aaron Stuart left and reunited with his old band Piebald. That meant the cancellation of a couple of high-profile gigs — an April residency at Lilli’s, and the opening slot of the Living End show at the Paradise earlier this month, where they’d have fit in nicely — but it’s still worth hunting down the band’s scathing five-song demo. S&S are, to these ears, the only band in town — and one of the few in the country — who can contend with the Social-Distortion-meets-GNR über-rock power of Backyard Babies. And though the Sinners’ “Dead So Soon” sounds as if they’d absorbed perhaps a little too much of the Backyard Babies’ Total 13 (Scooch Pooch), it’s almost as good as what little I’ve Napstered from the Babies’ own new disc, Making Enemies Is Good, which is scheduled to be released in Europe this week.

Issue Date: April 26 - May 3, 2001