As The Spin knows, supergroups can sometimes be super groups, as was the case late Monday night at The Basement, where Diamond Rugs and JP5 demonstrated rock ‘n’ roll virtuosity that was visceral and completely lacking in frills or affectation. Including members of Black Lips, Deer Tick, Dead Confederate, Six Finger Satellite and — the clincher — Los Lobos, Diamond Rugs is, The Spin thinks, one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands in the world at the moment. With big Deer Tick John McCauley providing focus, Diamond Rugs create insidious, catchy pop rock with a sardonic but never hard-hearted point of view. In contrast, JP5 sounded like a version of the music Bob Dylan helped create during his Basement Tapes sessions, with harmony vocals and 1971-style group dynamics.
The Spin missed Justin and the Cosmics, though Cosmics vocalist Justin Collins would sit in later with Diamond Rugs on a demented version of Diamond Rugs’ “Totally Lonely.” Joey Plunket and JP5 amazed The Spin — and the audience — with their perfectly calibrated riffs and their subtle but full-bodied mix of guitar licks and vocal interplay. JP5 rocks, but in the slightly country-influenced manner of Crazy Horse or Moby Grape circa 20 Granite Creek.
Diamond Rugs opened their set with “Tell Me Why,” one of the great tunes on their 2012 self-titled debut full-length. The groove was ferocious, and Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin added saxophone riffs. On many of the songs, Berlin was augmented by a horn section that comprised trumpeter Kirk Donovan and trombonist Oscar Utterstrom. As on Diamond Rugs, the addition of horns and keyboards gave the band’s seemingly straight-ahead tunes a nicely diseased twist. The songs skillfully contort clever riffs and chord progressions into new shapes, while the added textures suggest a fusion of The Replacements and the Latin Playboys of Dose.
As did the rest of the crowd, The Spin moved to the music. The ferocious rock groove of “Hungover and Horny” contrasted with the psycho dynamics of “Totally Lonely,” which began as a sort of tribal breakdown before proceeding into a weird Orbison-esque — or, perhaps, David Lynchian — version of ‘60s melodrama. With everyone pitching in, Diamond Rugs ran through numbers from their first record, and played a couple of punk-influenced tunes from their new project, which is in process. In fact, The Spin noted the in-process mood of the night, with an insouciant but dark undertone to the proceedings. The band did an amazing version of “Motherland,” which features lyrics about waiting for the final word, and how what once was rock now is sand.
Diamond Rugs’ lyrics often describe desperate situations — ”Motherland” certainly comes to mind, and the last track on Diamond Rugs, “Hungover and Horny,” also qualifies as desperate. “Hungover and Horny” rocked, while “Call Girl Blues” suggested the lingering influence of such ‘80s New Wave groups as The Cars. Diamond Rugs are a supergroup with a worldview, and their full-bodied but slightly distanced takes on stardom and identity came across perfectly in live performance.
What Diamond Rugs presented was rock music in process — the horn riffs and solos added a carnival atmosphere to songs that aren’t afraid of going to extremes. Songs like “Gimme a Beer” and “Big God” are about what happens when you get pushed to limits you were only dimly aware of, while “Country Mile” parodies country music, but not unkindly. At one level, Diamond Rugs’ songs are basic rock constructed out of sturdy chords and sturdier rhythms. At another level, the band seeks to subvert that sturdy framework without dismantling the entire thing.
The two new songs sounded great — both had pretty speedy punk grooves. One new tune was called something like “I Love You So,” and it demonstrated the band’s ability to breathe life into ancient rock. On the other side of the coin, they handled the mock country-rock of “Country Mile” with style. The country-rock side of the band fleshes out their sound, since many of their tunes are variations on punk and garage rock.
Appropriately enough for a band who writes about fame and its discontents, McCauley introduced “Blue Mountains” in a somewhat self-deprecating manner: “We got on David Letterman for this one, don’t ask me why.” It rocked just as much as everything else, and throughout the show, the experimental nature of Diamond Rugs’ music made was apparent even when the band was rocking hardest.
It’s a neat trick — Diamond Rugs sings about life’s uncertain situations with a certainty that’s reassuring. With fellow Deer Tick Robbie Crowell and Black Lip Ian Saint Pé providing contrast to McCauley’s penetrating, almost-country voice, the band goes all over the place: twisted Los Lobos groove, Replacements-style riffs, and spooky country overtones. Yet their performance aesthetic is close to their studio style — the punk influences merge with something both self-revealing and deeply hidden.
That’s the way with supergroups — you sense the synergy of the different personalities. What made Monday night’s show remarkable was the way both JP5 and Diamond Rugs integrated those varied personalities into rock ‘n’ roll that never smoothed out idiosyncrasies or made a big deal out of how consciously it messed with the form itself.