"I've been holed up, working on writing the most miserable batch of songs ever... it's our goal for these songs to leave you depressed and miserable," Bobby Bare Jr. announced at his recent Mercury Lounge show, before launching into one of the evening's many fine new songs. The moment was quintessential Bobby Bare Jr., in that he eagerly (and humorously) plays the part of self-deprecating sad-sack, slugging beer and shit-talking, but he delivers with better tunes and stage skills than any alt-country act, and it's not even fucking close. How his work remains so underrated, I haven't a clue.
I became an "accidental" fan of Bobby Bare Jr.'s music when I was present at his set as the opening act at a show in September, 2006 at Webster Hall, during which his country-inflected rock tunes (rock-inflected country tunes?) made the subsequent set by headliners Drive-By Truckers totally irrelevant. I bought everything I could find by the dude, noting that many of his studio albums leaned a little too much towards traditional C&W for my tastes, although I grew especially fond of his Nick Nacks and Paddy Whacks live album and the mostly live OK - I'm Sorry... EP.
Much to my delight, his next studio album (and first new one after I became a fan), the excellent The Longest Meow, was recorded mostly live in the studio (in one 11 hour session), capturing the thrills and spills of his always-excellent live show. Since then, I've seen Bobby Bare, Jr. perform many times with his always-roving cast of fellow Nashville residents, and it's incredible to me that the quality of the performances can remain at such a high level with the live lineup in seemingly constant flux.
Tonight's set kicked off with with "Mayonnaise Brain," a song Bare, Jr. has said was written about witnessing The Pixies melt faces at a live performance. [The Pixies are one of Bare's most obvious influences; he has performed in a Pixies cover band, he has covered "Where Is My Mind" in concert and on record, and many of his songs share a quirky power-pop sensibility with the best Pixies work.] "Valentine," one of my personal favorites, (and a recent Song of the Week) was up next (see above for video). A new song, one with a bassline that sounded like Booker T and the MG's playing Floyd's "Any Colour You Like" followed. Fuckin' sweet there.
The next run of songs (not including new ones, which I don't know the names of, obviously) included some of his better contemplative material - "I'll Be Around," "Don't Go to Chattanoonga," and "Visit Me in Music City." For some reason, directly following "I'll Be Around," a gaggle of 50-something striped-shirt douchebags (why were they at the show in the first place?) began streaming out of the room. Bare announced, "well, that's the best song we know; that's the best song you, the audience, will hear tonight, so yer all free to leave," which drew laughs from the faithful. Bare continued humorously complimenting the fleeing shitnutses: "see? Those motherfuckers know what they're doing! Smart folks." "Terrible Sunrise" (introduced as "a song written about realizing you need to stop hangin' out with your drug friends") fucking rocked, and contained a full-on jam of the Star Wars theme song... if only my video (below) hadn't run out before the song's thrilling climax.
I should mention that I REALLY enjoyed the new material, which was a good thing because he played at least a half dozen new songs. Most of them really rocked, which bodes well for a new album, whenever that may materialize. Bare has taken the helm on a couple of interesting projects over the last few years (shit man, whatever pays the bills), including a Shel Silverstein tribute album which featuring artists as diverse as My Morning Jacket, Andrew Bird, and Kris Kristofferson. His 2009 American Bread EP was a collection of his covers of songs by the band Bread. At this show, his version of the song "Cover of the Rolling Stone" (originally written by Silverstein, commonly known as a Dr. Hook song) was top notch, as was his subsequent take on The Smiths' "What Difference Does It Make?", a longtime Bare setlist staple.
The final "old" song of the evening, "Borrow Your Cape," was the only track performed off of The Longest Meow, highlighted by a cacophonous, Big Rock Finale (which unfortunately was cut off when my iPhone ran out of space... AGAIN, goddamn it). The set ended with another pair of new originals, the last one of which Bare described as being the song he's most proud of composing. (It was pretty great.) Bare graciously thanked the remaining crowd for sticking around and staying out late on a Tuesday evening, but when was the last time I got 90 minutes worth of rockin' great tunes on a Tuesday night? Sheee-it.
Luuuuuunch. Anyway. As it turned out, thanks to rain, and lots of it, I really don't have much to report from the Williamsburg Street Music Festival thingy on Thursday night. Rain throughout the day postponed openers Best Fwends set, which I really didn't have any interest in catching anyway. Instead, my friend and I had beers at The Abbey on Driggs. I wound up drinking 5 1/2 beers in less than 45 minutes, so I had a decent buzz going by the time we finally exited. We missed the first song of Cheeseburger's set, but they played "Money for the Heart," "Derby Day" and part of "Hot Street" before the thunderstorm came sending everyone scurrying. We somehow eventually made it back to my friend's apartment in Sunnyside to max, relax, and eat Peruvian chicken. The rain cleared up after less than an hour or so, so who knows, maybe Oxford Collapse got a set in after all, I have no idea -- but at that point getting me off the couch with my mouth stuffed with beans n' rice, yuca and that awesome green sauce wasn't happening.
On to Friday's show. Bobby Bare Jr. is definitely amongst my top five favorite live performers at this point. I was trying to come up with a list of other artists whose shows I prefer that still perform regularly, and all I could come up with was Comets on Fire, Mogwai, Arcade Fire, Social Distortion, and the now semi-retired (from playing live, at least) Robert Pollard. This being the third time I've seen Bare Jr.'s live show, I've still never seen him headline a set. Last year he opened for Drive By Truckers and pretty much blew them off the stage, and later I caught him opening for Centromatic. No Centromatic fan am I: he made those guys look like a fucking Barney sing-along or some shit.
Fortunately, Thursday night's Bobby Bare Jr. show was indoors. (Again, I'm aware that The Slip were headlining this show but I find them to be bland). Openers Meowskers kind of reminded me of bands like Bon Savants and Cheyenne, if only because of three reasons: 1.) chicks obviously dig 'em; 2.) their schtick is basically spare melodies delivered over inoffensive chording and 3.) I (embarassingly) kinda like 'em, too. Seriously, there were a ton of eminently porkable college chicks who showed up for these guys' set, most of whom were drinking heavily. Of course, ya had to know that as soon as Meowskers left the stage, these chicks would be gone and there would be plenty of room up front. "Hate to see you leave, but I love to watch ya go." [Flips down shades]
After the last shrill teenybopper cheer died down, Bare and his band began setting up immediately, and I noticed that the personnel -- and notably the instrumentation of his backing band, the Young Criminals' Starvation League -- had changed entirely. No more handlebar-sportin' well-dressed guitar dude (Richie? Is that his name?), but instead a dude on guitar/bass/trumpet/keys and a woman splitting time between bari sax and keys. Of course, I cheated and looked at their taped-to-the-stage setlists, pleased that they were planning on playing a heaping portion of great songs.
Opening with a somewhat more sedate version of "Valentine" -- complete with horn intro -- it became obvious that this would be a more pensive Bobby Bare Jr. show than I was used to. Throughout the set his jams seemed trippier than his usual countrified Pixies/ramshackle powerhouse RAWK. As his backing band seems to constantly be shifting members, it's cool to note the differences in performance styles. Well, for me at least. Cool shit. The set's second song, "Borrow Your Cape," featured the band roaring straight through in full bore hard rockin' mode. "Flat-Chested Girl from Maynardville" followed, and like previous versions I've seen the closing freeform coda was cacophonous and super dissonant. More faves were to come, amongst them "Uh Wuh Oh," "Mayonnaise Brain," "I'll Be Around," "Heart Bionic." According to their setlist, they had planned on playing "Stop Cryin'" before ultimately ending with "Terrible Sunrise," but... fuckin' time constraints. They closed their set with the requisite cymbal-crashin' big rock ending, after which I pretty much booked out the Bowery door to my car. Seriously, sticking around for The Slip's first couple songs would have been pointless because, face it, I was going to leave anyway, and always better to check out on a good note.
So, yeah, here's hoping Bobby Bare Jr. and the Young Criminals Starvation League comes back real soon (y'hear?) and that they can fire up a full 90 minute-or-so set of the good stuff. I'll be chewing my toenails in eager anticipation.