Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Hardluck Cowboys @ the Crux; Dark Swallows, The Gunfighters, Range Life and Annex Madly @ the VAC (5/4/12)

This was a busy night.  I don't usually shift between two venues or shows (the big exception so far being Treefort), but I wanted to show my support for Speedy Gray, who was playing a show at the Crux with local musician Johnny Shoes, and for Keesha Renna, whose Vagabond Promotions set up a solid bill at the VAC.  Man, who woulda thought that being a hipster/ poseur would be so much damn work?

My first stop for the evening was the Crux.  Both Speedy and Johnny Shoes apparently lost a gig, which prompted them to put together this one-off show under the name The Hardluck Cowboys.  I stayed for a little over an hour, and I wish that I could've been there longer.  Playing without his compatriots in Like A Rocket, Speedy Gray got to demonstrate just how fine a singer he really is.  On his quietly devastating cover of "Sunday Morning Coming Down," he channeled Willie Nelson right down to the conversational, just-behind-the-beat phrasing.  As for Johnny Shoes, he proved himself a songwriter and performer cut from the same cloth as Guy Clark and John Prine (both of whom he's opened for, according to his Facebook page).  For the 75 or so minutes that I watched them, they traded stories, jokes, songs and solos like they'd played together for years.  It was so great that it felt downright criminal being almost the only person there to see it.  I did note, however, that a lot of pedestrians passing by the Crux slowed their pace a bit to rubberneck.

I noticed quite a few cars in the parking lot when I arrived at the VAC.  That boded well, I thought, for the bands playing, for the VAC and for my friend Keesha.  That's the spirit, people!

I got inside just in time to catch the tail-end of Dark Swallows' set.  They sounded in particularly good form this night, and some smoke and lasers created just the right ominous atmosphere for their music.  The little bit of their set that I saw confirmed for me that, much as I like Le Fleur, I prefer this group just a little more: to my ears, they've got a stronger beat, stronger riffs and especially stronger melodies.

Next up after Dark Swallows was the Gunfighters, a local six-person rock band who decided to film their set for use in a music video.  After listening to Speedy Gray and Johnny Shoes, the traces of blues and rockabilly in this group's music felt a little cosmetic.  However, I couldn't complain much about these folks, considering that they came equipped with solid melodies, pleasant harmonies, outstanding guitar solos and a funky rhythm section (the drummer's a monster with that hi-hat).
(Note: There were a LOT more people at the VAC than this picture suggests.  They were all just hanging back by the bar and hiding from the lights and the camera.)

After the Gunfighters came Range Life.  This marked the third time that I've seen this local group, and it was easily the best yet.  The extra oomph that they put into in their minimalistic rhythms, artfully artless singing and jangling, droning guitar interplay made clear that their sound stems not from a lack of ability but from conscious artistic choices.  It also made clear to me that, while their music definitely owes a debt to groups like Pavement, Sonic Youth and the Velvet Underground, its true precursor is one of my all-time favorite groups (and a precursor of two of the bands that I just named, incidentally), Neil Young and Crazy Horse.  The unprojected vocals did make it hard to hear the lyrics, but the sure-fire tunes and razor-sharp soloing encouraged me to lean closer.  I'll look forward to seeing this group again and watching them develop further.

Closing out the night was local group Annex Madly, whose multi-textured, polyrhythmic rock and mysterioso light show owed something to bands like Nine Inch Nails.  My phone's crappy camera proved unequal to the task of capturing the darkened stage, the strobelights and the laser beams, so unfortunately, I don't have a picture of their set.  Maybe it's just as well--you might just need to see them live to get the full effect.

These guys had samples, noises, riffs, hooks and tunes galore.  The only thing that held them back was their singing, which I found at once too obtrusive and not obtrusive enough.  Music like this needs a belter/screamer like Trent Reznor to spearhead it or a gentle warbler like Bernard Sumner to stay out of its way.  Annex Madly's vocals seemed to insist on their own distinct identity, which I thought broke some of the spell that the music and lights tried to create.  All the same, the group's set was impressive and provided a good ending to the concert.

You can find info about Speedy Gray, Johnny Shoes, the groups who played the VAC and Vagabond Promotions on Facebook.

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