Words By Jeb Gavin, Photos By Franz Mahr
When I found out I’d be covering Friday night’s Cursive show at the Black Cat, I looked back, trying to remember the first time I heard The Ugly Organ. I still can’t recall. I know the conditions under which I would have heard it: borrowed from a friend, lights out, laying on the living room floor of a shitty College Park apartment. I probably would’ve been bored the first time I heard it. I was bored and boring back then. Well, more so. I can remember thinking the opener (not the intro but rather “Some Redheaded Slight of Hand”) was too monotone. Then again by 2003 I’d discovered any music could be depressing under the right circumstances- just try choreographing your morning routine to “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO if you don’t believe me. Yet touring in support of the expanded re-release, all the album’s wounds feel scarred over, and I liked it now more than ever.
First let’s check in on my year of openers. The Nighty Nites (or possibly John Congleton and the Nighty Nites, or perhaps even just John Congleton) kicked off the evening with the sort of disappointing shouting I was worried would come from an emo opening act. Imagine Max Collins from Eve6 hollering through reverb, strangling a guitar while covering Elton John’s folkier hits with the sort of breathy shudder that made Jeff Buckley amazing and everyone else annoying. Congleton’s just so intense, so desperate to make the audience aware of something. It wasn’t clear exactly what. I found their set frustrating as I enjoy Congleton’s production and engineering work.
Next up that evening was the real gem of the night, Beach Slang. After coming onstage to the overture from the Harry Potter films, it was clear they sat diametrically opposed to the dour The Nighty Nites: Beach Slang came to have fun. Lead singer James Alex- stopping several times in the middle of songs to explain in jokes or choke down an overflowing beer bottle said it plain: “sometimes rock and roll gets taken too seriously- I assure you that’s not going to happen here.” Even before they pulled Cursive’s trumpet player Patrick Newbery on stage to cover “Can’t Hardly Wait,” it felt like watching The Replacements goofing around on stage. The Replacements, but fun and happy. If my notes are correct, they also covered Guided By Voices’ “Game of Pricks” right after. Don’t miss Beach Slang the next time they come to town, likely as headliners of their own tour.
Just after 11:30 Cursive took the stage. Perhaps “took” is too assertive a word. Cursive assembled on stage, with some measure of purpose more than an accident but less than a show of force. A dozen years gives a different perspective on what was a very emotionally raw album. Touring with a trumpeter/keyboardist and a cellist, the songs were less urgent and more wistful, even as some members of the audience danced and shouted along. Emo at the turn of the century had just boiled over. Friday night felt like hearing your dad explain how he was married before he met your mother, and why it didn’t work out. It’s presented not as a cautionary tale so much as a statement of fact- take from it what you will.
The stacks of sinister minor chords sounded smoothed out, not as abrasive or confrontational. Even as I write this, I’m listening to the album and I want to skip to the dissonant breaks to avoid the screechier verses. They didn’t play the thing straight through, nor did they play all of it. For this I am grateful, if only because I’m happy to have seen a live, fleshed out version of “From the Hips.”
I think if you’re an emo band reissuing an album, this is exactly the sort of show you should be playing. You reflect on what you’ve made, you play with it a bit and reexamine it as an adult. Then you show it off and hope your audience has grown too. It’s good to be reminded: you can look back on your past without trying to figure out how you made the same mistakes again.