Frank Black and the Catholics
with The Bennies, David Lovering, and The Reid Paley Trio
Toad’s Place, New Haven, CT • November 10, 2002
We arrived a bit early on Sunday night, I suppose with the hope that the earlier we got there the earlier the show would get over. This pathetic resignation is not so much meant to disparage the bands who would inevitably take the stage that night, but is rather a solemn admission of my lower middle-class, grownup reality. With four acts on a bill that was to begin (yeah, right) at 8:30, and an hour car ride home, the pangs of Monday could already be felt.
The Bennies, an emo-esque band from South Central PA (not-LA, as I thought the singer said), started things off. At first they were pretty interesting: nasally harmonies sung over crunching guitar riffs, with the occasional melancholy breakdown (a trademark of emo), all the while maintaining a very poppy feel. And of course there was the obligatory love song, with the requisite ironic twist of an indie geek. In this case, “Peripherally Yours.”
Categorically, The Bennies fit in somewhere between the pop leanings of Guided By Voices and irony-laden distortion of Pinkerton-era Weezer. Yet, within fifteen minutes into their abbreviated set, the band seemed vapid and formulaic as each song sounded like the one that preceded it. It didn’t help that the crowd wasn’t that into them, but after all, the Simpsons season premiere was on the many televisions scattered throughout the club. In my infinite respect to musicians, I set my VCR. While The Bennies were not overly engaging, I have seen infinitely worse opening acts.
David Lovering followed. For those who know their Pixies history, Lovering was the band’s drummer. Absent from the music scene for a long while, appearing only in the credits of other bands’ albums, including Frank Black and Tonya Donelly, I was anxious to learn what he has been doing for the past decade. Well, it seems that Lovering has either spent considerable time in chemistry and physics class, or a whole lot of time watching Bill Nye the Science Guy. His performance had nary a thing to do with music. Rather it was a mad scientist’s interpretation of performance art. There he stood on stage, donning safety glass and a white lab coat. He taught us about vortex cannons, and how we can make one similar to his with a kick drum. Did you know that “pickles have a great luminous effect when 120 volts are applied?” Lovering proved this trivial fact, admonishing, “please do not try this at home.” To assist with his experiments, he invited random audience members to the stage. Each assistant was awarded a piece of meteorite for his or her effort and courage, as Lovering demonstrated theories of electricity and magnetism. Needless to say, this unique performance ended appropriately with pyrotechnics and “She Blinded Me By Science” blaring from the PA. It’s kinda refreshing to diversify the standard rock billing.
Next to perform was The Reid Paley Trio. They are my new favorite band. This white boy can belt out some the most raucous, foot-thumping, head nodding blues I have witnessed in a long while. Paley’s gritty vocals have an eerie Tom Waits feel, while his energy and attitude was reminiscent of Jon Langford’s performances with The Waco Brothers (in fact, he bears a slight physical resemblance to Langford). A wonderful storyteller, Reid wove tales of love and alcohol, and a love for alcohol; it was all about straight-up blues tropes. He sang of damnation and other grotesque themes (e.g., “Lazarus Of Brooklyn). As Langston Hughes said of the blues, they are often about laughing to keep from crying — listen to Willie Dixon and this notion is evident. Reid is clearly aware of Hughes’s dictum as he humorously concluded his set with, “give me a chance and I’ll fuck it up.” During Frank Black’s performance, I saw Paley flirt with a waitress.
The first thing one noticed, long before Frank Black and the Catholics took the stage, was the number of instruments that littered the performance space: the usual guitar, trap kit and bass, but also an organ, not one, but two pedal steel guitars and tons of vintage equipment (Mr. Black has become somewhat of a collector of the stuff). Such a panoply of instruments was not only telling of what the audience was in for, but also signifies what Frank Black is (and has been) doing as a musician. The Pixies sound was an amorphous construct; there is no one rubric under which they can be placed. Transcending music conventions and conceptual boundaries, they created an engaging cross-pollination of punk, Latino, rock and many other forms. It is as if they are a genre unto themselves. Black’s post-Pixies music has a similarly variegated feel and this show was no exception as he ripped through rollicking cowboy tunes, straight forward rock-n-roll and an occasional blues tune.
While Black and the Catholics had wonderful stage presence — one member wearing a bright red suit (that matched his orange hair), with black shirt and red tie while the drummer sported a pale yellow suite and a baby blue cowboy hat — they didn’t seem to regard their audience with much enthusiasm. Those of you who have seen J Mascis know what I’m talking about. It is not that Frank and his boys were bumptious fucks like Mascis, they just showed little interest in those who paid fifteen dollars to attend. Yet, the band seemed to appreciate each other, as they were tight, anticipating and understand each subtle progression of each other to create a sonic tapestry of rich textures, yet deceivingly simple.
The set list borrowed primarily from the band’s two newest, simultaneously released, albums Devil’s Workshop and Black Letter Days. While vacillating between lugubrious and upbeat, there seemed to be more emphasis on the former. In his only acknowledgement of his audience, Black remarked that this night seemed to be “a good night for the quiet stuff.” Unfortunately, the “quiet stuff” was banal. If Black gave any regard to his audience he would have easily discerned this. Frank isn’t as cuddly as he seems. However, when the band rocked, the people rejoiced.
Admittedly, I was not expecting anything from the Pixies’ repertoire. I was thus delightfully surprised as Black and his band gave a nod to the past, performing “Gouge Away,” “Crackity Jones,” and a few other Pixies classics. The one regrettable moment was a minimalist reinterpretation of “Monkey Gone to Heaven.” It was Black’s vocals and two pedal steel guitars, and it was so uninspired. Yet, despite this and the other aforementioned disappointments, the people loved Black and the Catholics. The underage kids with purple hair who were in kindergarten when The Pixies called it a day, segregated from the rest of the crowd by chain-linked fence, and the middle-age folks who are perhaps now part of the booming financial investment industry that has subsumed Connecticut, came together and for one night rocked out. Thank you Mr. Black.