The Spin knew there would be no topping Miley’s multimedia extravaganza last Thursday. Though we were aware that Friday night’s show at The Stone Fox would be slim on production — no golden Cutlass, no giant tongue, no one singing into anyone’s ass — we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that there would be some damn fine pop music, and we were going to enjoy every last note. Right after we finished that BLT with pimiento cheese on it, of course. Can’t let life’s simple pleasures pass you by.
The revolving membership of James Wallace’s group, The Naked Light, enhances the feeling that you’re seeing something entirely new each time — even if you’ve watched their set 10 times, it’s probably not the same band you saw before, and if they play songs you know, it might take a few bars to recognize them. In addition to Wallace on keys and guitar, Friday night's band consisted of bass (doubling on synthesizer), drums (with a percussion setup that included all the bells, if not the whistles), lap steel doubling on sax (sometimes with an octave-fuzz effect that made the lap steel sound like a chorus of saxes) and another sax player doubling on clarinet. Old telephone handsets repurposed as microphones added to the impression that the group just wandered onstage and started playing with whatever they found there. But the ramshackle presentation is a clever distraction from just how tight the band is, and just how well-crafted Wallace’s songs are — nimble pop nuggets that turn a bunch of disparate folk traditions into one highly danceable sound. (At least, they make us bob around like the Peanuts gang.)
We went for a re-beer while Cotton Jones set up and found ourselves shimmying through a near-capacity crowd on the way back to the stage. The Cumberland, Maryland, sextet laid down pillowy layers of mid-’70s folky soft rock with two keyboards, pedal steel, a crisp soul-inflected rhythm section and gentle, nuanced vocals from husband-wife team Michael Nau and Whitney McGraw. This sound isn’t our bag all the time, but — despite the irreparable damage it does to our standing with the cool kids — we will always get down with it when it’s done right. We will defend the honor of Looking Glass’ “Brandy” like she was our own sister, and we’ve done our share of “Dancing in the Moonlight.” The trouble with Cotton Jones’ songs was that they fell into a groove and just sort of sat there. What we wouldn’t have given for a good hook or a bridge that really stood out from the rest of the song — c’mon guys, give us something to sink our teeth into! Don’t share our beef with the rest of the crowd, though, because they seemed to be having a high ol’ time.
We were getting the sleepy eye when Floating Action took the stage ‘round midnight, but they quickly perked us up with their winning combo of AM pop and freak-scene music: a cosmic cloud of psychedelia here, a reggae bass line there, a blast of big college-rock guitar where we least expected it. No wonder Jim James loves this guy. Most of the crowd had called it a night already, but those who stayed were treated to a nice mix of new and old tunes, all sweetened with leader Seth Kauffman’s Brian Wilson-esque voice and his bandmates’ breezy harmonies. We’d be remiss if we didn’t give the drummer some props, too. We’ve had our minds blown by the greenest punk kids and the most dazzling pros, but it’s always treat to see a player like Floating Action’s Josh Carpenter, who clearly had skills he could flaunt but chose to hold back and play with the band instead.
That’s a nice image that we could extend to describe the whole show. It wouldn’t be tough to find a more flamboyant spectacle for our Friday night — Hank 3 was partying with Jesco White and Yelawolf just a couple of miles away at Exit/In — but who said something a little more low key was a bad thing every once in a while? Not us.