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SHOW REVIEW: Purple Rhinestone Eagle, The Catnip Dreams, etc.

Posted by: Necci – Aug 30, 2010

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The Grapefruit Experiment, The Catnip Dreams, Purple Rhinestone Eagle and Black Liquid
August 25 at Strange Matter

After expressing frustration with the way late shows on weeknights are often run, I found myself unwittingly becoming part of the problem last Wednesday night. I showed up at Strange Matter just after 10:30 and discovered that the first band was already halfway through their set. It's not fair to complain about shows starting late when you don't show up on time, is it? Mea culpa, mea culpa. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a decent turnout at the show. I tend to consider myself relatively "in the loop," and yet I had never heard of any of the bands that were playing. Therefore, I figured the show would be sparsely attended, which turned out to be a foolish assumption on my part. It just proves that being in the loop about one small segment of the scene does not mean that you know everything; there are probably other loops that you are out of, perhaps even to the extent that you don't know they exist.

The Grapefruit Experiment were the band that was playing when I walked in, and from the front door of the club, it sounded like they were repeatedly knocking over stacks of metal objects--oven racks, modular shelves, that sort of thing. Instead, they were set up on the floor of the club in what was close to a conventional power trio format, with a guitarist, a drummer, and in place of bass, a guy with a huge and elaborate setup of effects pedals. The guitarist also had quite a few pedals laid out before her, on a table rather than on the floor as is customary, and she was attacking her strings with the sort of metal brush that jazz drummers use to play softer beats. The sound she was getting from the scraping of the brush on the strings, combined with the rimshots and disconnected clattering being played by the drummer, were what had given me the impression that things were being knocked over. The Grapefruit Experiment's music seemed improvisational in nature, and evolved organically through different movements as I watched. After a few minutes, the sound built to a unified, powerful crescendo, and sounded for a moment or so like a band endlessly holding the final chord of a song, jam-band style. But whereas it's annoying when jam bands do such things, The Grapefruit Experiment used it to devastating effect, especially after the relative quiet of the earlier parts of their set. Rather than stopping, they moved past this crescendo and into more noise, though the latter part of their set was a bit more structured than the first few moments I heard. The guitarist went into borderline guitar hero mode at this point, leaning into her amp and wringing shards of noise and feedback from her instrument. The clanking runs of dissonant notes she played reminded me of a time when I saw Dillinger Escape Plan and their lead guitarist was having an off night; he kept getting out-of-sync when doing his speedy, elaborate runs of single notes, instead playing a bunch of flat, off-key thuds. For The Grapefruit Experiment, though, this was the desired effect, and it mingled well with the deliberately arrhythmic percussion and oscillating bursts of treated noise. It wasn't a conventionally musical set by any means, but nonetheless The Grapefruit Experiment gave a fascinating performance.

The Catnip Dreams are a Richmond indie-pop supergroup, featuring members of Hot Lava, The Diamond Center, and the Color Kittens, among others. Their sound brought me back to the early 90s, when the International Pop Underground movement, led by K Records in the US and Sarah Records in the UK, was at its zenith. The Catnip Dreams are not as minimalist as Beat Happening, not as sugary as Heavenly, and not as heavy as Sleater-Kinney, but musical elements of all three show up in their sound. With two guitars, a synth player, and a standard rhythm section, their sound is thick enough to bring the rock, but the undistorted guitar sound and the high, catchy melodies of the synth keep them more on the pop side of things. And then there are the vocal harmonies, truly the highlight of their sound. Four of the five took lead vocals on at least one song, and all of them contributed multi-part harmonies throughout the set. They seem to pull inspiration from the same 60s girl-group sounds that influence Best Coast, but The Catnip Dreams put this influence in the forefront of their sound in a way that Best Coast does not. Their riffs often resemble the three-chord post-blues progressions that dominated early rock n' roll, and at one point I could've sworn they were going into a cover of some 60s chestnut ("Fever"? "These Boots Were Made For Walkin'"?), only to discover from the lyrics that it was an original. After making as many comparisons to other bands, it might seem like I'm implying that The Catnip Dreams are overly derivative, but nothing could be further from the truth. The great thing about simple, catchy pop/rock n' roll is that it's an easy sound to play well, and The Catnip Dreams made that sound their own, writing excellent tunes and adding great vocal harmonies in the bargain. They played a thoroughly enjoyable set, and I hope to see them again soon.

Purple Rhinestone Eagle were on tour from Portland, Oregon, and hit the stage with the biggest amps of the night. A true power trio, they channeled the proto-metal sound of the late 60s and early 70s, bringing a consistency to that style of music that was often absent in the works of the bands who orignally played it. Other than Blue Cheer's Vincebus Eruptum, or the first Black Sabbath album, it's hard to find an album from the early days of metal that doesn't detour at least once into balladry or third-rate hippie jams. Purple Rhinestone Eagle avoided any such detours Wednesday night, delivering a thoroughly crushing set. They also managed to avoid the downfall of many modern stoner-metal bands: the tendency to stick with a single slow tempo and become monotonous. It took them 20 minutes to get through their first three songs, but the length of the songs was less due to sludgy tempos than to complex song structures, which helped to keep things interesting. They mixed things up even more on the next few songs, throwing in a couple of short punk blasts, complete with screamed vocals from their bass player. Their set ended with their most epic song of the evening, featuring a long introductory guitar solo. All three of the members were excellent at their instruments, but while their technical proficiency certainly helped make their music enjoyable, it's their songwriting chops that set Purple Rhinestone Eagle apart from the pack. At a time when stoner-rock has become a bit of a cliche, it's nice to see a band play it well enough to make clear the reasons why that sound became popular in the first place.

Black Liquid were the final group to perform, and it became apparent immediately that scheduling them last had been a poor decision. Most of the crowd had come to see The Catnip Dreams and Purple Rhinestone Eagle, and since it was getting late, it was easy for people who'd seen the group they came to see to rationalize bailing out rather than sticking around for the last band. I couldn't help but feel like the fact that Black Liquid were the only hip-hop group on the bill hurt them as well. None of the groups on the bill were very similar, but improvisational noise, indie-pop, and punk-influenced stoner metal all share a common cultural background, whereas hip-hop is coming from a very different place. The combination of the late hour and the significant difference in styles led to Black Liquid being a soundtrack to people saying their goodbyes. This seemed even more of a pity when I saw how good they were. Black Liquid reminded me of Jurassic 5 or Gang Starr; lyrically, they mixed socially conscious statements with party songs extolling the virtues of 40s, weed, and good times. Musically, they used soul samples and boom-bap beats to create a heavy yet funky sound. In addition to the group's DJ and three MCs, they featured a hype man whose antics significantly upped the entertainment value of their live performance. Every few songs, they'd stop the music, hand the hype man a mic, and he'd go into a pro-wrestling inspired rant, attempting to incite higher levels of energy in the dwindling crowd--complete with Ric Flair-ish interjections of "Woo!" Then, once the music started again, he'd jump around, both onstage and out on the dance floor, waving a homemade championship belt and doing kung fu dance moves. His antics were silly but fun, and provided a visual element for a stage show that otherwise consisted mostly of MCs standing still and rapping. I'm not sure if Black Liquid could ever really get an indie/punk crowd all that hyped up, more's the pity, but I imagine that their sound and performance would go over well with a more traditional hip-hop audience.

From the wide variety of enjoyable sounds on display, to the significant, energetic crowd, to the way the entire night ran smoothly and without a hitch, this show gave me plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the current state of live music in Richmond. Sometimes it's easy to get jaded and cynical, to let yourself slip into negative thinking and start assuming the worst about every situation. But I've found that if you reserve judgment, life provides frequent arguments against cynicism. That was definitely true last Wednesday night at Strange Matter, where almost all of my cynical assumptions were proven wrong immediately.

Words by Andrew Necci Photos by Joanna Moreno

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