Being wayward but devoted students of the way pop music's endless boogie expresses the spirit of our time, The Spin thinks it's fun to try to trap that elusive old zeitgeist in a jar for a second, so we can see the little ghost squirm. Today, the boogie has been refracted through the lens of history, and it comes out sounding something like what Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit did Saturday night at the Ryman. The Spin must emphasize that Isbell's exemplary music is more than boogie — part of that refraction we just mentioned has to do with post-punk principles, singer-songwriterdom and the changing face of the South itself. With Nashville singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose providing the anti-boogie that threw Isbell's achievement into relief, it was a fascinating night of Southern pop music.
Beers in hands, we settled in to watch Rose. Specializing in languid but sometimes slightly Beatle-esque country-rock songs and arrangements, Rose ably furthers the '70s-specific tongue-in-cheek pop-country tradition of Brinsley Schwarz, Maria Muldaur, Michael Nesmith and former Brinsley member Nick Lowe. Rose's crack sextet backs her ably, with Spencer Cullum Jr.'s pedal steel particularly apposite. Singing in a slightly laid-back style of neo-torch '70s pop country, Rose performed songs from her records — the The Stand-In track "Pink Champagne" sounded great, while her cover of The Deep Vibration's "I Was Cruel" proved she has a way with country rock. She also pulled off a superb version of Paul Anka's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," which has been done by such boogie masters as Buddy Holly and Linda Ronstadt. The band played their slightly bent pop perfectly, and The Spin liked it when they locked into a Stiff Records-meets-The Beatles groove on a couple of tunes. Rose is getting better as a singer, though there were moments when The Spin wished for a bit more variation in her approach and phrasing.
If Rose is something of a formalist who could stand to buy a pair of boogie shoes, Isbell uses various modes to express himself with his workmanlike singing — his voice may lack the beauty of Rose's, but he definitely knows how to express himself. Like many post-punk Americana singer-songwriters who have a feel for the dynamics of electric guitars and band interaction, Isbell likes to disguise his insights in music that never calls attention to itself. Isbell boogies, but he never loses control.
Beginning nearly every song with a chord sequence or lick on electric or acoustic guitar, Isbell proved himself a superb frontman. The Spin respects anyone with such solid musical skills who never makes himself obtrusive. When Isbell delivers a lyric, you hear it, and you feel it. When he essays a guitar solo, you sense that he's a disciplined player who thinks in terms of the total performance. Isbell sings about Southern identity and its discontents — with his parents in attendance, the Alabama native and former Drive-By Trucker made his 2003 song "Outfit" sound like a Southern anthem, minus the optimism of such '70s Southern rockers as Charlie Daniels. And while Isbell adds terse riffs and slightly off-kilter rhythms to his sturdy, straight-ahead melodies and chord changes, he also references one source of that eternal boogie when he kicks his band into shuffling 4/4 and gospel-soul-derived 6/8 grooves. He covered the obscure Muscle Shoals-recorded Candi Staton B-side "Heart on a String," which was co-written by famed tunesmith George Jackson.
The two-hour set was a master class in dynamics, pacing and formal savvy — Isbell's vocabulary includes power chords and two-step country-rock rhythms. With his wife Amanda Shires providing subtle accompaniment on violin, Isbell made boogie music that questioned itself at every turn. Remarkably, his audience seemed to welcome Isbell's skeptical but never irreverent comments on the complexities of Southern identity — they whooped and hollered, sang along and sat rapt as Isbell waxed soulful on such tunes as "Alabama Pines" and "Danko/Manuel."
Isbell wrapped things up with a cover of The Rolling Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'," a song that summed up post-boogie malaise as it existed 40 years ago, when the Muscle Shoals rock and soul scene Isbell references in his music was at its height. "Can't You Hear Me Knockin' " rocked, and Isbell looked happy to acknowledge the inexorable pull of those old, familiar self-destructive zones.
It's been nearly four years since Diarrhea Planet — the six-headed, guitar-shredding party-punk hydra — burst into the local rock scene like a brick through a window. In those days, their guitar quotient was down to three, they gave out their debut EP Aloha in repurposed Christian rock CD cases, and we spent more time trying to remember how to spell "diarrhea" than it took for them to play "Get Stimulated." With a head full of nostalgia, we headed down to Exit/In on Saturday to celebrate the release of I'm Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams, DP's sophomore effort for Infinity Cat.
We arrived shortly after 9 p.m. to find locals Bully already onstage, banging out riffs like they never escaped 1993. We noted that frontwoman Alicia Bognanno pulls off a more modern alt-rock sound, never wavering into hazy beach punk or cutesy Spector-sound girl group-ism. Really, we just think songs like "Bully" remind us enough of Sonic Youth's "Kool Thing" mashed against the soundtrack to But I'm a Cheerleader that we just wanna celebrate them for not falling into the Best Coast trap.
After we purchased a 32-ounce Miller High Life as big as our head, Brooklyn post-punks Hunters appeared onstage and proceeded to totally blow us away. If Bully was reveling in the early '90s, Hunters built their band out of Green River records. They have the whole "menacing power chords" thing down, lightened up only by singer Isabel Almeida owning the stage like Be Your Own Pet's Jemina Pearl in her heyday. Any band that starts one of their songs with a non-ironic "Floyd the Barber" fake-out is cool with us.
Sounding like Ramones minus all of that unsuspected conservative baggage (or like if Tim Curry founded the Descendents), Hunx and His Punx frontman Seth "Hunx" Bogart and his band are a whirlwind of innuendo. While we appreciated Too Young to Be in Love's transgressive attitude, taking the Shangri-Las and layering in the gay agenda, we never really fell for it. Hunx's tunes off the brand-new Street Punk, however, are brilliant. The addition of Shannon Shaw (of Shannon and the Clams fame) has done wonders for their sound, letting them cut loose into other genres of punk while still letting Bogart pelvic-thrust into dudes' faces like something out of a John Waters-directed fever dream.
We were so amped up by Hunx's Rocky Horror punk that the Brooklyn-based So So Glos were kind of a letdown. Not because they weren't good, but because after three opening bands (and a high bar of charisma set by Bogart) we were starting to feel the sag of a marathon show. Despite being Brooklyn born and bred, the Glos pretty much sound like So-Cal pop punk. Which is fine! If this were a show on DP's regular tour, which The So So Glos are supporting, we'd be into it. But they just didn't stand a chance following Hunx.
We're pretty sure Diarrhea Planet has never come onstage to Johnny Cash's "Ain't No Grave" (which we were later informed was also wrestler The Undertaker's pre-match theme), and they leaned heavily on their new, more grown-up tracks from I'm Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams, but it was still your standard DP show. There was still a bonanza of crowd-surfing. There was still a rowdy pit that was vigilant about making sure nobody got hurt. It was still a shred fest to rival all other shred fests (but without being wanky Joe Satriani bullshit). And no matter how much Diarrhea Planet might mature, they'll never escape playing fan favorite (and by our count, the only Aloha cut of the night) "Ghost With a Boner." Never. But if you ever hear us complaining about an average DP show, you can go ahead and wheel us into the grave — we're officially too old for punk rock.
Yeah, sure, there were antics — Evan Bird strapping on a wireless guitar and sneaking over to the balcony to wail a guitar solo from the stairs was a good one — but at its heart, DP's album release show was on par with their regular shows. For any other band, that would be a slam. But for Diarrhea Planet, that just speaks to the high level of intensity that characterizes their shows. It was a reminder of how badly we need bands like Diarrhea Planet in our lives — bands that don't take this whole music business thing that seriously and are fully dedicated to using their Belmont music degrees for making the best, most explosive and surprisingly precisely played party music possible.
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