The Spin strolled into The End Friday night looking forward to an evening of mostly-new-to-us music and sidled up to the bar, curiously on time. Glancing over the stage, we mulled our expectations for opening act Shy Guy, which were low, based on their confusing Web presence.
By our good fortune, they turned out to be a two-guitar rock band that takes its cues from pioneering shoegazers like My Bloody Valentine and Ride, and their cover of Slowdive's "Alison" would have slipped past as an original if not pointed out by a very animated Taylor Rust, whose cassette release was the evening's cause célèbre. We're a bit uncomfortable with the term "shoegaze," since it implies to the uninitiated that the band swatted listlessly at their instruments, which couldn't be further from the truth in Shy Guy's case. The quartet has mastered the art of tremolo picking and pounding drums at a furious pace to produce a gorgeously shimmering sound wall.
At our best guess, the show drew a modest crowd of 75, but most of them knew the twin-guitar attack of Memphis' The Switchblade Kid by heart. The band unleashed wave after satisfying wave of aggressive asphalt rock in the pop-fracturing lineage of The Velvet Underground and The Jesus and Mary Chain, with excellent counterpoint from their lead guitar-slinger — a Zen shredder whose expression remained composed despite the raging storm of notes he called forth from his Stratocaster. More than one patron spent the set spellbound by his style.
We chatted for a minute with Kelley Anderson — a founding mother of Southern Girls' Rock and Roll Camp, former Those Darlins bassist and engineer of T. Rust's Dimes EP — who made special note of the house sound engineer. Though no one can replace the holy fury of the late Brad "Porque" Baker, we readily agree that his successor is friendly, engaged and competent to wring a decent mix from the cozy old shack.
T. Rust commanded the stage, pulling his band into a tight half-circle at the lip. He began his set solo, using a pulsing loop to cover the entrances of bassman Mike Kluge, whom we last saw with Murfreesboro noise-punk trio Awesome Shirt, and Mikey Lieberman, a sleeper among the community of talented local drummers, by which we mean he's in fewer than five bands. After several numbers without a break, they launched into what is fast becoming their signature tune, "House," this time in a somewhat slower, creepier version than what appears on the EP. Working with Anderson, Rust has acquired some much-needed polish since we first saw him perform as a shy teenager, but his wiry, feedback-laced solos, dipped in cascading layers of slap-back echo, show a sharp, experimental edge glimmering through his wistful post-pop tunes.
After a surprisingly chilly breather on the patio, Blank Range kicked off a short and sweet set of permutations on pan-American rock. We haven't seen much from this group yet, but we're pretty stoked on their cohesion and tendency to take songs in unexpected directions. Sporting dual frontmen Jonathon Childers and Grant Gustafson, BR delivers remarkably sharp tunes; "Roommate's Girlfriend," a song whose narrator has an affair broken off by a girl he wasn't ostensibly dating anyway, proved particularly cutting. One key to the tune's effectiveness was the unassuming delivery, a quality that percolates through the whole group: Cymbals were scratched, Gustafson's baritone guitar emanated throaty, skronking leads and occasional UFO-landing noises instead of the mellow melodies to which we're accustomed, and the lead guitar doubled the bass in old-school tic-tac style — but every uncommon technique was executed without fanfare, as simply part of the fabric.
A slew of diverse bands have surfaced in Nashville over the last decade, whose excellence has significantly shaped the national media's renewed interest in our alt-music scene. But a little variety goes a long way to keeping our ears eager for more, so it was doubly exciting to see locals explore new angles so proficiently.
The Spin likes mystery and suspense — the kind of atmosphere that gives you pleasant chills as you think about how some pop artists emerge from the shadows after years of obscurity. Inside the Ryman, the packed house was waiting to see the Detroit folk-rocker Rodriguez, who made two fine but unsuccessful albums in the '70s. At least, he thought he had been unsuccessful. But as last year's documentary Searching for Sugar Man made clear, the singer had become an icon in Australia and South Africa, with the film itself paving the way for his North American fame.
The Spin settled in, and the crowd seemed ready to worship at Rodriguez's altar — it was a slightly raucous houseful of suspense-loving rock fans. Opening act Jenny O. caught the ears of The Spin with her old-fashioned jug-band sound, but it wasn't old-fashioned in any pejorative sense. Her tight, efficient quartet displayed a disarming mastery of '70s-style funk rhythms and slangy guitar licks. Doing tunes from her full-length Automechanic, Jenny O. and band reminded The Spin of some cross between The Lovin' Spoonful and Nick Lowe — their style combines hints of R&B with echoes of 1960s San Francisco hippie-blues bands.
Rodriguez came onstage led by members of his family — he has glaucoma, which means the 70-year-old singer and guitarist moves somewhat slowly and tentatively. But The Spin noted his charisma factor, which was augmented by his super-cool demeanor and leather pants. Joined by a trio comprising electric guitar, drums and bass, Rodriguez began his set with "Climb up on My Music," the first track on his legendary 1971 Coming From Reality. The band grooved and gave Rodriguez's electric guitarist a chance to play a couple of fuzzed-out solos. (As does Chuck Berry, Rodriguez tours with a series of bands. At the Ryman, he didn't introduce them.)
The band tore into the garage-rock of the Cold Fact track "Only Good for Conversation" — the song's sinister riff sounded as potent as it must have in 1970. Another track from his first album, "Crucify Your Mind," sounded fine minus the horn and marimba of the original recording. Electric guitar filled the holes, but there were times when The Spin noted a certain shakiness on the part of Rodriguez's band. Maybe it had something to do with Rodriguez's compelling but perhaps slightly idiosyncratic sense of time. Some songs sped up, and others became examples of a minimalist approach to rock ensemble playing that was, when all was said and done, pretty bracing. And anyway, Rodriguez's songs are strong enough to survive any number of slight abuses. "Sugar Man" and "Can't Get Away" sounded great stripped down by the band, and "Sugar Man" ended up as a demented psychedelic soundscape, with Rodriguez doing serious damage to his electric guitar. On the other hand, "Street Boy" has always reminded The Spin of a great lost Lou Reed song, and it came across suitably blithe and light.
Rodriguez proved himself a great songwriter, but he did some interesting covers, including a version of "Dead End Street," a 1967 Lou Rawls song written by David Axelrod and Ben Raleigh. He also performed eccentric reworkings of "Lucille" — the Little Richard rock 'n' roll classic — and "Fever," written by Otis Blackwell and Eddie Cooley and made famous in versions by Little Willie John, Peggy Lee and Brian Eno. For variety, he sang "I Only Have Eyes for You," a tune written in the 1930s by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, and revived in 1959 by rock 'n' roll vocal group The Flamingos.
Rodriguez struck The Spin as magnificently casual, even though there were times when the music could have been more thoroughly worked out, or the tempos held in check by the rhythm section. He sounded much as he does on his recordings, and the only unsure moments The Spin heard came on some of the cover versions. Rodriguez sounded both world-weary and optimistic — suitable for a musician whose records express the utopian aspirations of '60s culture. He told jokes, including one about Mickey and Minnie Mouse that used a punch line that had something to do with "fucking Goofy." He charmingly requested that he be treated like any old everyday, run-of-the-mill legend, and he threw out some aphorisms. The Spin's favorite went something like, "Hate is too powerful an emotion to waste on someone you really don't like."
Rodriguez seemed energized by the audience's love, and cut the intensity of his songs with humor and humility. The Spin clapped along to his encore performance of "Like a Rolling Stone" — a fairly well-known '60s folk-rock tune — and Rodriguez closed the show with "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die," one of those Great American Songbook songs Frank Sinatra used to perform. It was a perfect ending, and proved once again that in pop music, obscurity makes the heart grow fonder.
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