Compton and I made the unusual trek to H Street Thursday night. Unusual because, not being convenient to any metro station or late-running shuttles, and still be somewhat isolated – it’s not a desirable trip to make unless you 1) have the means (a car) and, 2) absolutely want to go. Despite the grand plans for the developers of the recently added venues like the Rock N’ Roll Hotel, Palace of Wonders, and Red & Black, the neighborhood hasn’t improved all that much commercially. Plus, we’re older now. Going out after a long day at work, at least not directly after work, and staying out late on a week night takes a lot more energy and motivation than it used to. Looking around at my semi-bohemian kin (we did come to see obscure bands perform), I was pretty sure that my show-going days will soon be numbered. At least outside of the reunion show, which draws older fans (it was a pot-bellied gray fest at Devo!). Still, I’ve got a few good years left.
We’d been out there before, Compton and I. At least to the various H Street venues. I joined Compton and McD once before for a sideshow performance at the Palace of Wonders, and that right there tells you it’s not your usual bar. There’s an upstairs freakshow museum, the occasional burlesque night, and they serve popcorn with the beer. If it weren’t so far out of the way from mass transit, we’d probably venture out there more often. And with the Other AC, I’ve gone to a number of shows at the hotel-turned-venue known as the Rock N’ Roll Hotel. We’d only set foot in the Red & Black before, accidentally thinking at first that it was the Palace of Wonders when Compton and McD and I were there. Now we got the full view.
The Red & Back is a very small venue. Many of the new establishments on H Street designed for clubs and concert venues were, at one time, very narrow homes. And their conversion to businesses didn’t seem to impact the original structure, much. True, now there are bars, and the place is decorated in the usual red and black paint scheme that most of the venues are these days. But it still looks like a house, and is still just as small. Which is a little troublesome to work with when you’re running a bar up and downstairs, and a stage. Only the most obscure bands are likely to play here, because there isn’t really room for audiences of say, more than 30 people or so. If you want breathing room, and a good chance of reaching the stairs in case of a fire, that is. The floors are creaky and the oboe player of The Torches joked, with some seriousness, about the likelihood of falling through the floor. As Carol King once sang, “I feel the Earth move under my feet.” It certainly can keep you on edge for most of the show.
We arrived just after doors opened at 8:30 and the bartender downstairs announced the bar upstairs was now opened. With three bands going on Thursday night, they were all surprisingly efficient. Well, with the exception of the Young Republic, a six-piece band out of Nashville that had such a lousy sound check, I expected them to simply walk offstage and call it a night. The lead singer tried to make the best of the situation. “We were in DC a few years ago when we were all much younger,” he said, adding an anecdote. “They wouldn’t let us in the club, so we wound up playing someone’s living room. So this is much better.” But nonetheless, setup and set time were pretty much right on schedule for everyone. I figured things to stretch out after the opening band left the stage.
The Torches are “mostly from around here.” A local act we’re connected to through the lead singer, Stephen Guidry, whom Compton and I went to grad school with, and Compton went to undergrad with. Previously, with one of the greatest local bands, The Cassettes, they sadly disbanded when that band’s lead singer, Shelby, made the curious move to Sweden. Or Switzerland. Or Not-here-land. Rumor had it Guidry and the middle-age Theramin player, Albert, had formed a new band, The Torches. And this was the first of their shows we heard about. Albert, at least not this night, was not in the lineup, but the show was still quite good. Guidry, who showed up dressed in his usual Cassettes-garb, with a sort of small town Midwestern rodeo announcer look (add a beard and straw hat), took center stage with the banjo, kick drum, and hi hat. To his left, the other two guys in the band – a bigger guy dressed in plaid and wearing bowling shoes who played the accordion and the harmonica, and a really thin, sheepish looking guitar player who strummed a sweet looking Gibson. To his right were the girls of the band – a bassist and my favorite, a spunky oboe player who had this frizzed, curly reddish hair that reminded me of Marisa Ribisi in Dazed in Confused. All that was missing was the afro pick.
They started off the set with the great tune, Mr. Vampire, the title of which derives from a movie (see the video below). Others were songs based on books, which the band invited the audience to guess the titles of, in exchange for a free band schwag.Mr. P was one of them, but the lyrics weren’t so discernible for that, and the song that followed, and I don’t think that anyone guessed the title. Or at least those who knew weren’t brave enough to say so. (What a crowd!) Guidry sat down and played his banjo, growling out vocals almost vaguely Tom Waits style, while alternating between kicks on the drum and high hats before stepping it up enough to completely knock the tambourine right off of the top of the hi hat. They’re a great band, performance-wise, for personality and stage presence, which is great for small audiences and adheres to that philosophy that Man Man’s lead singer, Ryan Kattner (Honus) proclaimed: acknowledge your audience. And with that gritty, folk-ish style, I could see the Torches joining forces with Man Man. Though on their own, The Torches, in stage presence and sound, make their musical heritage apparent, skipping directly all those years of pop rock of the last twenty years or so. Though, that’s what the new folk rock-ish stuff is. The Ramones never happened and everyone has had some sort of formal training on traditional (guitar and percussion) and non-traditional (banjo, oboe, accordion) instruments.
The audience surprisingly kept their distance a bit from the stage. In such a small room, it’s rather uncomfortable, to be so quickly squeezed into the back when there is extra space up front, and the band’s rally-and-pep person (the oboe player!) kept suggesting to people to just move with the music, and more importantly… fill in the empty space! There was one short burly girl in front of us, who was dancing to the whole set, in a weird, almost restrained dirty dancing style that seemed to overtake her. And when the oboe player got tired of knocking around the tambourine on a few sets that didn’t require the subtleties of the oboe, she handed it off to an audience member who kept up the beat nicely while the oboe player switched to the triangle. I love this band… they were so remarkably casual. True, the setting lends to that kind of mood, but then again, even The Cassettes were always so easy-going with their audience and their bandmates.
The Torches performing “Mr. Vampire” at the IndieArts Fest in Arlington, VA in Summer, 2009.
With time for Compton and I to head over to the bar (two or three feet away) for a quick refresh, the Young Republic were next to take the stage and endured a rather frustrating sound check. I was certain the Nashville-bred group was going to just signal the old “Fuck It, Charlie Bucket” and walk off stage after at least a good ten or fifteen minutes of constant fixes and breaks. The biggest problem was that the viola/violin/fiddle players — someone suggested that girls play the violin, guys play the fiddle, and the lead singer kept correcting the sound check guy by referring to them as violas… — couldn’t get their instruments to come through the mics for about half the show. They also couldn’t get their keyboards and the girl’s vocalists to shine much at full volume either without the feedback flaring up and squealing. “Now here’s this song again, but the vocal version,” the lead singer when they went through the first number again. They’d interrupt and the sound check guy, when he wasn’t futzing with the keyboard equipment and the foul mics, was talking to the band over the PA, something which seemed to baffle the kid standing in front of me. “Who is talking?” “It’s the Voice of God,” I replied. What’s worse is that the sound guy couldn’t even see some of the band members onstage. “Who’s talking right now, I can’t even see you,” he said, unknowingly, to the lead guitarist as he was redoing the mic volume, which offended the guitarist a little. “Really dude? I’m like the tallest guy in the band!” And he was quite tall.
To judge by the lead singer’s clothes, I would have guess him to be coming fresh from work, had they not actually been coming fresh from tour spots in other cities. He wore a collared shirt, dress pants, and brown leather dress shoes. The whole band was an odd mix. The drummer, with long hair and an orange and white striped shirt and mustache, looked like he was plucked from the set of Almost Famous. The keyboardist was dressed in red and black plaid and a vest. And the lone female of the band wore white shoes with her black dress. It was an odd mix, though nothing out of place with this kind of fare. With this kind of venue. With these kind of people. The Young Republic are somewhat comparable to the New York band, Robbers on High Street, who sadly hardly ever get around anymore. They’re more like a band where every song is a desperate anthem for something – like The Walkmen. And, like the Robbers on High Street, they’ve got this thick, casual vocal style like Julian Casablancas (The Strokes) and they’re back with smart lyrics and great song structure, but cut with their own eclectic indie-blues-rock style that pumps in just as much overdrive guitar as it does melancholy fiiddle/viola/violin.
The Young Republic, with the Don’t Move, performing “Ghostbusters” lo-fi style.