all words: Colin Wilhelm
all photos: Katherine Gaines
“Garage rock” can mean a lot of things about the bands that fall under its label: simply energetic or simply simple, polished or rough-hewn, ballsy or lazy. June 2nd’s show at Rock’n’Roll Hotel, headlined by the Dirtbombs, showcased the full range of those qualities as well as further testament to the inability of genre labels to accurately describe a band’s sound.
First let’s start with the not so good: Foul Swoops. Perhaps it was simply an off night for them, but for a local band that’s generating a decent amount of buzz they certainly underwhelmed. Most of the three member band’s songs conveyed what politely can be called a quickly written songwriting style, involving few chords and beat changes in 2-3 minutes increments, sometimes incorporating semi-coherent screams into a microphone.
On loan from The Lolitas, awesomely named drummer Jacky Majic provided the most/only real energy of a set that picked up (slightly) towards the end. The only time during the set foul swoops really did anything to grab attention was at the end of their last song, when the band shrunk to just drum-hammering Majic and guitarist/lead singer Dev Connell’s guitar set on one feedback note, and Majic gleefully charging into the crowd with a snare drum.
To be honest I’m not sure if this was something they uniquely came up with or is some sort of garage rock tradition since the Dirtbombs did an extremely similar maneuver at the end of their show, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. If only they had begun the set this way, the energy might have carried through to other songs within it.
Next, Baltimore’s The Lexington Arrows provided a nice palate cleanser, amping up the energy level substantially with solid blue collar sounding rock anchored in tight instrumentation and (unpretentious) attitude.
Singer/rhythm guitarist Kathleen Wilson radiated rocker charisma onstage, with jet-black hair, eyeliner that accentuated every expression and look, and a low hanging guitar she strummed furiously through most of the set. Wilson’s smoke-filled voice channeled Joan Jett, while drummer Matt Pie personified the working class reputation of their hometown, heavy beard, cutoff sleeves and all. Thee Lexington Arrows didn’t branch too far from their roots, but they played their songs loud, fast, and good.
Closing the night, the Dirtbombs spent the first part of their set playing sweeping, meandering, somewhat abrasive noise jams that bled together and sounded like a band doing their best sonic impression of a pretty girl playing hard to get; they played just enough “normal” hooks, a few measures every couple minutes, to keep people from walking away.
The Dirtbombs’ unusual setup of two drums (manned by Ben Blackwell and Pat Patano), a “fuzz” baritone guitar played by Ko Melina, a touring bassist, and lead singer/guitarist Mick “Cool” Collins allow them to explore these sounds well beyond their garage/art punk boundaries. Collins and the bassist opened the set with oozing, primordial noises; then the double drum sets and bass started driving the music along while Collins and Melina danced around drawn out minor notes and chords in a different time signature, and possibly a different zip code.
It was as if the band told the excited R n R Hotel audience, “we will be weird, amorphous and abrasive for the next thirty minutes, with just enough dance-punk beats and basslines to keep you hooked while we twist your ear around,” and it worked. While not always aesthetically pleasing, this created a musically complex sound that couldn’t be ignored. The Dirtbombs played just about all their songs without any break in between; this, combined with the style of play, made it occasionally hard to tell where a song break happened during the first half of the set.
After cruising around space in a rocket ship made of weird guitar sounds, the Dirtbombs (somehow) naturally transitioned into the ramming-speed, kickass, balls out sound and style that they’re more associated with. Burning through favorites like “Ever Lovin’ Man”, “Underdog”, and “Can’t Stop Thinkin’ About It”, they did a complete 180° for the second half of the night, showing their age and setting controls for the heart of the Sun.
It took a bit for the crowd to catch on, beginning with a handful of nodding beat zombies, but after a few songs people started cutting loose to the sound of furious dance-rock (and a solid cover of “Tear the Club Up”) overlaced by Mick Collins’ satiny demonic voice.
This show proved that garage rock, like any genre or sub-genre of music, is pretty much worth whatever the band makes of it. You can use it as a cover for laziness (foul swoops), hone it to a “T” (The Lexington Arrows), or you can get weird, blow the fucker up, and then put it back together (the Dirtbombs).
Fittingly, near the end of the show, Mick Collins held his guitar over his head triumphantly, rock star title successfully defended.