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Nobody's Vault But Mine & Third Man?

Guest Blogger: Susannah Felts
Memorial Day weekend saw the third and final Nobody's Vault but Mine gathering in Nashville—sort of a mini-festival/gathering for aficionados of all things Third Man, with two nights of sets by bands with ties to the record label. While I don't count myself among the fierce devotees of any and all TMR releases and arcana, I'll go on the record as a staunch White Stripes fan who's had, er, something of a middling obsession with Mr. White as of late*, so I was curious to see what the four bands on the lineup—PUJOL, Brian Olive, Boogaloosa Prayer, and The Ultras S/C—might have to offer.

I should point out here, too, that I don't exactly get out to see rock shows all that much. Not anymore, anyway. Once upon a time, dank clubs, loud guitars and cheap beer were pretty much my entertainment default, but...something happened. You know the story. Accretion of age, decrease in stamina, desire for sleep and coherency trumping three hours of rock...oh, and reproduction of the species along the way, too. I've never stopped loving music, but these days I'm usually doing the vigorous head-bob thing in the car, not at the bar.

So, yes: it felt a little bit like a homecoming, a little fish-outta-water to step inside the confines of the aptly named Basement, where, to my delight, Jeepster was playing as The Ultras S/C got ready to take the stage. (I fell in love with that album my senior year of college, a full 30 years after its release, and here it is still, setting the perfect tone; there's a great pleasure to be found in the fact that some really good shit just doesn't age at all.) The Basement's stage, mind you, is a full six inches above the rest of the small, grotto-like room, paved with an ancient, duct tape-riddled Oriental rug, a snarl of Christmas lights clumped onto a desultory candlelabra in the left corner. There are not earplugs for sale, but there should be.

That stage—this venue—is just the sort of terrain where a band like The Ultras S/C (formerly Black Faces) is most in its element, one with the ethos of the place, you could say. Practitioners of a saucy, insistent blues-punk inflected garage rock, Jemina Pearl (of Be Your Own Pet launching glory), Chet Weise (of Immortal Lee County Killers), and Ben Swank (of TMR and Soledad Brothers) were the perfect openers: loud as hell and impossible to take your eyes off. That last part was mainly thanks to Pearl, who is flat-out gorgeous and 100% natural-born rock star (also, 110 POUNDS OF BITCH, as her gray vintage tee proclaimed in flocked lettering, its sides cut away to reveal a black bra). Black short-shorts, ankle boots, long bleach-blond hair with inky roots, a thumbprint-sized bruise on an otherwise flawless pale thigh...you get the picture.

A not-very-good shot of Chet and Jemina
Her feral howl is mesmerizing, channeling Pat Benatar and Courtney Love (a la Live Through This) and pretty much filling anyone who has a thing for a bad-ass female rock vocalist with a deep, desire-fueled respect, cut with a streak of fear. Across from her, Weise never once brushed the hair out of his eyes, seeming more 17-year-old garage-player wunderkind than the 30something* he is, and offered up the occasional, well-timed kick. Behind them, Swank was like an animated gif of a head-banging drummer—and I mean this in the very best way. He never let up, and I worried for the inner machinery of his neck. The whole package worked, and worked hard, and if the Ultras S/C are treading some well-worked ground, they do it with skill and undeniable stage presence, right down to the solid guitar-wanksta moves devolving into a feedback finish.

Next up, Booglaoosa Prayer, a band whose name instantly erects a red flag in my mind, as in: This cannot be something you could possibly care for.

How glorious to be proven so dead-damn-wrong.

As with Ultras S/C, there was nothing new to the musical formula here: This was straight-up, down-and-dirty Delta blues rock, played by a bunch of white guys—which brings to mind the caricature band Blueshammer in the Terry Zwigoff/Daniel Clowes film Ghost World, whose existence offends poor authentic-blues enthusiast Seymour (Steve Buscemi) to the core. Sure, it's highly iffy territory; I mean, I find it difficult to believe that any contemporary act can do this kind of thing honestly and passionately and not feel like they're pawns of redundancy...

...Cue the needle screech: These guys absolutely nail the genre; they had the entire room magnetized in about 10 seconds flat. They were hands-down the biggest crowd pleasers of the night. Maybe that's just testament to the fact that no matter what, the masses're gonna love us some blues-rock, dangit. But surely this audience, worshiping at the altar of Jack White and, presumably, the kinds of legendary artists whose altars he worships at, can sniff out an ersatz take on blues-rock stomp right quick. Likewise, they must know the real thing when they hear it. I submit that this was 110% the real thing, with the lead blues/slide guitarist and singer Dooley Wilson the sun around which the other band members expertly revolved. That said, I should point out that there are some other heavy-hitters in this bunch: Jimmy Danger, Todd Swalla, Matt Ruch.

Note the eyebrow.
But Dooley Wilson. This guy.....What do I say? Gaunt to the degree that the jut of clavicle beneath t-shirt makes you cringe; holey, faded blue jeans; honest-to-god blue bandanna trailing from a back pocket (though I never saw him use it)...pretty much teleported straight from 1976 was my first thought...and utterly under the spell of his instrument, his musical craft. As one site puts it, Wilson "offers a combination of bottleneck/slide guitar virtuosity with a renegade intensity that is more at home in a seedy rock club than at a typical 'blues society' venue." Well, again, the venue proved ideal.

Again, this was a can't-take-your-eyes-off-'em performance, different from Pearl's but perhaps charged by the same visceral emotions, urges. In his most rapturous moments of playing, Wilson's face took on an expression that, well, I've only seen guys cop to in a certain moment; let's just leave it at that. Other times, his eyebrows, darker than his sandy brown hair, performed an acrobatics, jumping up as if pulled on invisible strings by dead blues gods far above. He chewed gum the entire set, slightly slack-jawed, and rolled his eyes skyward. He bellowed gorgeously—a deep, strong, soulful, gritty vocal that I was positive was indigenous to the South (until I found that the band in fact hails from Toledo, which I tried not to let disappoint me too much). Wilson's singing voice is that of a Chosen One, a blues deity in the making. So imagine how perplexing--kinda delightfully so--it seemed when, on the few occasions he spoke to the crowd, he suddenly sounded like a Banana Republic associate helping you find your size in seersucker pants. Excuse me, what? Did the spirit that possessed you just exit the building? Whoa! Serious, bizzaro Jekyl & Hyde stuff, that voice....

Anyway, I digress somewhat. They rocked, and the women in the crowd drew figure-eights on the floor with their hips, and the men nodded along appreciatively, and nobody wanted them to stop, ever. And when the sound guy made the motion for them to wrap it up, Swank shouted back to let 'em play: "Everyone's got time for this!" And what "this" was was a blistering rendition of "Going Back to Memphis," their song brought to fame when the White Stripes covered it on Conan O'Brien. Somewhere out there, Jack White's ears had to be tingling...

Phew. I bellied up for a second (or was it third? ahem) Shiner Bock. Guy at the bar next to me, to his buddy:

"Those are two fucking hard sets to follow, man, you know?"

No kidding.

So bless well pedigreed (and former Soledad Brother) Brian Olive's heart—he had some solid pop-rock numbers, he plays a mean sax, but my heart hurt for him a little, having to follow up those two acts. That's all I'm going to say about that. He was in good company and played well, but the crowd thinned a bit.

Last up, the boys of buzz-band PUJOL, whose new album Nasty, Brutish, and Short has just been released on Saddle Creek.

Another crappy iPhone photo, yay!
They were cheerful and looked very young; Pujol himself wore a bright blue tee, cut open at the neck, that read "One Nation Under God and Under Surveillance." (I see Daniel Pujol at my neighborhood coffee shops frequently and somehow he looked much younger on stage.) The set was short and sweet and screechy; PUJOL's songs have some great stops and a fun, angular boppiness offset by a wall of noise, jangly and speedy and exuberant. (The band garners comparisons to the Ramones and Wavves, among others.) A couple of the guys from Boogaloosa Prayer smiled appreciatively; one noted "Reverse Vampire" as a great song, which it is. (All around, the bands seemed pretty warm-fuzzy with one another at this show, and there was a startling amount of hugging going on.)

I went home with blood in my ears—and without my debit card, which I still need to retrieve from the bar. Sign of a good rock'n'roll night? I reckon so. Nice work, organizers of Nobody's Vault but Mine. 

*I was going to explain this, but...oh hell, never mind.
**I cannot verify the accuracy, here.

3 comments:

  1. Considering what's not mentioned in your review, it sounds like you left way too quickly.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh damn. What'd I miss? -sf

    ReplyDelete
  3. what did you miss? Umm... Brian Olive... Johnny Walker... and Ben Swank... ... after Pujol's set.. performing as The Soledad Brothers, ( for the first time in 6 yrs)... yeah.. you missed THAT.
    ~Barbarann

    ReplyDelete

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