Posted by: Necci – Mar 09, 2012
It had been a long road to reach this day, but it finally arrived after months of hard work for Nate Igor Smith. The project he took on to help capture the legacy of his lost friend, Ross Harman, had finally come to fruition. Both of Harman’s Ballpoint Pens releases would see new life on vinyl, along with a double-vinyl pressing of a tribute record in his honor. The tribute release featured touching covers of his solo material, as well as renditions of his tunes from his acclaimed project The Gaskets. The only way to unveil the outcome of a project like this is to throw a party at Strange Matter, and invite a bunch of friends to come play heartfelt sets of familiar tunes and new discoveries.
The Miles O’Brien Band started things off with a short set of Gaskets tunes, as well as a few from their former project, The Ex-Patriots. One of the stronger points of the crop of performers that played throughout the evening was the way that they each displayed distinct facets of Harman’s personality. The Miles O’Brien Band brought a giddy joy to the bouncy anthems they played, demonstrating a lighthearted approach to music that was fairly indicative of Harman’s style in The Gaskets, as well as the sillier side of Ballpoint Pens.
Gary Atkinson developed a relationship with Harman based on the open mic night outings that were a regular Gaskets tradition. His set portrayed music’s past in a way that felt tried and true. Atkinson closed things out with a rendition of The Talking Heads “Once in a Lifetime.” The cover offered great perspective into the musical spectrum that helped to shape Harman as an artist. His art was saturated in the music of yesteryear, and the Gaskets would even find ways to show that off by offering their takes on They Might Be Giants' “Don’t Let Start,” or George Harrison’s “I Got My Mind Set On You.” These songs were such a strong part of their lineage that it was impossible to ignore the sensibilities that registered within The Gaskets as they were introduced to this music. Atkinson helped to get that across in his short, but sweet set that was a touching tribute to a lost friend that shared an unbelievable love for music.
History was one of the reasons that Strange Matter was chosen for the venue for this night’s proceedings. 929 West Grace Street was the closest thing to a musical home that The Gaskets could find. Schnitzel was given the honor of taking on The Gaskets’ catalog for a trip down memory lane, and were the perfect candidate to take on this task, as they used to share the stage with The Gaskets all the time. The best way to describe their set was a triumphant blast of a good time. They went through “Earthquake,” “The Easy Life,” “BAD” and a closing rendition of the Ballpoint Pens song “Symphony.” As Schnitzel paid tribute to the champion duo act, the audience was reminded of the glorious pop of The Gaskets. It’s easy to forget how much fun it was to regularly see the group around and about. The Gaskets was the perfect vehicle for Harman to achieve glowing pop with his creative counterpart Teddy Blanks. They could channel an energy that was unrepresented by Richmond music at the time. To top all of that off, the songs happened to be really good and catchy as all hell.
It wasn’t just a good opportunity for Teddy Blanks to perform on this night. It was absolutely necessary. His performance aesthetic had helped to provide a theatrical texture to the live shows of The Gaskets. While the two would collaborate on music, Blanks in particular could activate a level of enthusiasm unparalleled by most performers. Now, at this tribute show, there was an easy line of interaction between the audience and Blanks as he dove into a plethora of new material. It made me wonder if this is where The Gaskets were headed. There were signs on Loose Change and the Architecture EP of the way the duo was creating a newfound balance with their songwriting. The music emulated the pop fabric that they were known for while the lyrics engaged listeners with confounding ideas of general anxieties and the oncoming apocalypse--all played out to a dance beat, in a successful fashion that could be described as their iconic sound towards the end of their days.
Blanks approached this set with the accompaniment of friends from The Sound of Music studios, and a laptop taking on digital beat duties. Each song received a great performance on Blanks’ part. The one that stuck out to me was one based around a story he'd read in The New Yorker, about a woman who felt as if she had an itch on her head. Due to a malfunction of her nerves, she continued to scratch the agonizing annoyance until she eventually broke through flesh and bone to begin itching her brain. In typical fashion, Blanks found this to be a perfect subject to write a pop song about. Music is as big of a priority for Blanks these days, and that’s understandable, but the set he performed on this evening showed that he hasn’t lost a bit of the spark that made his role in The Gaskets an appealing creative outlet for fans and musicians alike.
The final band of the evening was Novios, who are probably the best cover band in the city. The group features members of Sports Bar, Dead Goats, The Trillions, VCR, Cubscout and The Rhinoceros, and many more. They usually only perform at private engagements, but when they got the opportunity to perform an entire set of Ballpoint Pens tunes, it was their pleasure. While Harman's collaboration with Blanks in The Gaskets helped to spread a pop approach to a party lifestyle, Ballpoint Pens was his unadulterated voice and thought process. The subject matter of these songs could be as simple as declaring the lunacy of cows on pope mobiles, or it could deal with a very honest fear of mortality. Every song helped to capture a moment of time for Harman, and they never spared the listener in their ability to be as brutally honest as possible. I remember my first time hearing Ballpoint Pens on a streaming site, specifically the song “Right Here.” I downloaded it immediately, and couldn’t stop listening to the track for the life of me. There was something in its simple approach and the cooing of differentiating male and female voices that really struck a chord with me. From then on, I always bothered Harman about finding a way to play these songs live. I played them on my radio show any chance I could get. Even though it’s obviously too late to see him perform these songs, Novios did a more than admirable job of capturing the energy and vitality of Ballpoint Pens. They nailed it.
“The City” kicked things off and it was nonstop from there. “Missed Connections” was done as a country-western style tune, while “Mark My Words” was nailed as a straight-ahead rock anthem. Chris Smith was greatly utilized as a vocalist on “Nine Times Out of Ten” and “My Lord,” while Kemper Blair’s scratchy, nasally vocals came across passionately during “Calcutta” and “Vain.” Blair and Smith were never alone, as they were accompanied by the on-point harmonies of Mya Anitai and Bonnie Staley. Appearing to close the night with “Robot Love,” Blanks jumped back onstage to join Novios as they broke into an altered rendition of Kiss’ “God Gave Rock and Roll To You,” fittingly retitled to “Ross Gave Ballpoint Pens To You.” The front row of the crowd picked up on the change quickly and sang along as the band delivered the evening's true finale with unbelievable valor.
The night before this show, I'd had a chance to talk to Chris Smith before his other band, The Trillions, were slated to play at Kingdom. He spoke of how crazy the Ballpoint Pens’ songs were, and how he was really looking forward to unveiling them. The one regret he had was that he wished Harman could have been there to see this. He had a strong suspicion that he would really have dug the way it all turned out. I can’t help but agree. At the end of the night, there was joy in the air, and a small sense of closure for the loss of our friend. The void will never really disappear, but having the chance to celebrate his life and achievements makes it a little easier. This was a night that nailed everything it set out to accomplish--a night that helped us remember our friend Ross Harman, and why we are still listening to his music a year and a half after his death.
Words by Shannon Cleary
Images by Nate Igor Smith