Shannon Cleary sure went all out for this year’s edition of WRIR & The Commonwealth of Notions Present: Volume Four. With five shows in four days, the lineup presented both an embarrassment of riches where local music is concerned and a somewhat daunting challenge in terms of scheduling.
Shannon Cleary sure went all out for this year’s edition of WRIR & The Commonwealth of Notions Present: Volume Four. With five shows in four days, the lineup presented both an embarrassment of riches where local music is concerned and a somewhat daunting challenge in terms of scheduling. The way my job tends to keep me running inevitably meant that I was only able to make it to one of these shows. Fortunately for me, the Saturday, July 19 night show at Gallery 5–fourth of five over the course of one long weekend–had a stacked lineup of incredible RVA bands.
Sadly, I missed the first of these. Rolling up at 6:30, I was expecting “rock time” to be in effect, and no one to have played yet. When I saw Shannon on the sidewalk outside of Gallery 5, though, he informed me that Tarrant had actually just finished. I was pretty mad at myself for blowing my chance to catch this new alt-country sensation, featuring singer/songwriter Jordan Tarrant backed by members of Avers and Grease Trigger, among others. However, I didn’t dwell on it too long, since a lot of other performers were still to come.
Nick Woods took the stage next for a solo set. The former Orioles frontman has been away from Richmond for several years, and has written a completely new set in the time since he left town. This was made obvious when someone in the crowd requested an old song from his RVA days, and he couldn’t remember how to play it. Woods had to beg off from that request, but the crowd wasn’t too let down, as he had plenty of other songs in his bag of tricks for us. His set mixed a bunch of new originals, including some written with a NC-based collaborator (I didn’t write the guy’s name down, sorry!), with a few covers that he explained were in his repertoire due to some recent acoustic dinner music gigs he’d been playing down in Tennessee (or North Carolina? I should’ve taken notes). He made the covers his own, though, so the set didn’t lose momentum when he played songs that he didn’t write. A Tom Petty song Woods described as being “in the style of a Cyndi Lauper ballad” was the best cover of the set and a highlight of his performance as a whole.
During Woods’ set, the crowd was still rather small, and a huge gap formed between the stage and those who were watching the show. However, the people watching were into the music and stayed engaged throughout the set–a positive aspect of this show that continued throughout the night. More people filed in and filled up some of the empty space up front during Anousheh‘s set, which was excellent. Anousheh’s spent the last few years working her way back from a major label deal gone bad, and she recently crowdfunded the release of her next album. She and her backing band performed several songs from the album in the set, including some more electronically-driven tracks that are a bit of a new direction for her–at least as a solo artist; her work with Deep Dish definitely points the way for this material. While mixing programmed loops with live instrumentation is always risky, she and her band pulled it off well, and “Hold You”–the first single from the forthcoming album–was possibly the best song she played all night. In light of the special-occasion air that the entire evening had, it was fitting that Anousheh ended her set by bringing Homemade Knives vocalist Wil Loyal (also Anousheh’s husband) onstage to sing a duet on the Homemade Knives song “Virginia.” I honestly wished Wil would have sang a little more–he let Anousheh handle what felt like 3/4 of the vocals–but it was good to hear this song again, so many years after the last time I saw Homemade Knives play.
Mutwawa were next. This electronic duo started out as an experimental noise project but have steadily moved towards more danceable music over the past several years. Having not seen them play in quite a while, I found their set to be much less improvised and more coherent than it had been last time I caught them. Not that it was bad then, but Mutwawa were great at Gallery 5 this night, setting up on the floor with a variety of keyboards, effects pedals, samplers, and percussion instruments and bashing out some bizarre yet undeniable grooves. It’s the kind of thing I would have called “mutant disco” if Ze Records hadn’t already gotten to that term 30 years ago. As it is, Mutwawa’s music reminds me of what the Butthole Surfers going electro-disco should have sounded like (instead of that obnoxious song “Pepper”–everyone who doesn’t know any Butthole Surfers songs besides “Pepper” is required to watch this YouTube playlist. Yes, all 55 videos). The best part of Mutwawa’s set involved a huge percussion instrument that appeared to consist of broken cymbals and maybe a gong attached to something like a trashcan lid. The duo had a contact mic attached to it, and Jason Hodges spent a good bit of time walloping it with drumsticks, the sound of which was then fed through multiple effects pedals to produce all sorts of crazy noises. Meanwhile, Hodges and partner Gary Stevens kept a dark, propulsive groove going throughout. Mutwawa’s set was decidedly out of the ordinary on this bill mostly consisting of rock bands, but really, they’d be unique on almost any bill, as what they do is so creative and unusual. It’s always worth hearing, though.
The Awesome Few followed Mutwawa, and it took me several songs to decide if I liked them or not. This rock n’ roll trio seemed quite conventional after the electronic festivities that had just concluded, but that wasn’t the problem. Honestly, while The Awesome Few had some really good riffs, my main issue with their songs was their repetitive nature. The riffs that sounded good at first soon got grating because they played them too many times in a row. What this band could really have done with was a good bit more dynamics. They occasionally built up to a noisy, energetic climax at the end of one of their songs, and moments like this were when I felt most warmly towards them, but the repetition that occurred during the journey to these crescendos ultimately was too much for me. I think this band could do with shortening their songs quite a bit, or with writing a few more riffs to mix in and break up the monotony. Perhaps both would be best. There tended to be good ideas at work in each of their songs… just not enough of them per song, in my opinion. I’ll give them another shot the next time I run across them, but as of now they aren’t really living up to their potential.
Heavy Midgets were the penultimate band on this bill, and the one I was most excited about. Despite my very public fandom for this young indie-punk group over the past couple of years, I still hadn’t caught them live, and I was eager to see how they’d translate the sounds I loved from their records for their stage show. Turns out they do a very good job of this, and the set was everything I’d hoped for and more. They opened with “Safe On Your Mountaintop,” the song from 2012’s split LP with Tungs that made me fall in love with the band in the first place. Charlanne McCarthy’s gorgeous vocals were every bit the equal of her studio performance–which isn’t something you can always take for granted. She and fellow vocalist John Graham switched between guitar and bass, with each of them playing guitar on the songs they sang and bass on the ones they didn’t. John’s songs tended to be louder and more raucous, and his guitar parts tended towards noise and distortion, while Charlanne’s songs were poppier and more likely to include single-note guitar melodies and arpeggios. Regardless of who was playing rhythm guitar though, the band’s lead guitarist, Ian McQuary, was there to anchor the songs, and he definitely stepped up for several J Mascis-worthy solos over the couse of the set. There was a good mix over the course of the evening of older songs, songs from the band’s latest album, Super King, and even some new stuff. The last song, which featured some beautiful singing from Charlanne, with John and Ian harmonizing, over a strange, dissonant guitar intro, was weird and awesome–probably my favorite moment of their set. It pointed toward an intriguing direction for the band’s new material. I’ll definitely go see them again as soon as I can.
The final performance of the evening came from The Snowy Owls, whose usual four-piece lineup was augmented by a guest vocalist named Tori (I was never able to find out her last name). She harmonized with lead vocalist Matt Klimas on all of the songs the band played over the course of the evening, but sadly her mic was not turned up very loud at all, and she was all but inaudible at most points of the set. The set itself was still very good regardless, with Snowy Owls busting out quite a few songs from their forthcoming full-length. Snowy Owls get called shoegaze quite often, which might lead you to expect the band to sound like My Bloody Valentine. While that comparison is inaccurate for Snowy Owls, the band does have some of the more general qualities associated with the hazy, guitar-driven bands of the early 90s: fuzzy guitar distortion paired with quietly crooned vocals, lots of bent notes and soaring instrumental passages, etc. Their sound makes me think if anything of American bands from the same era, such as The Swirlies or Drop Nineteens. It’d also be fair to compare them to early Smashing Pumpkins, so it was appropriate that the second song Snowy Owls played in their set was a cover of “Mayonaise,” from the Pumpkins’ 1993 album, Siamese Dream. This is not only my favorite Smashing Pumpkins song but one of my favorite songs by any band ever, so I was freaking out a little bit, but it seemed they introduced the cover so subtly that most other people in the place didn’t catch it. On one hand it makes sense, because “Mayonaise” wasn’t ever released as a single, but on the other hand–for shame, people! Give props to one of the best songs ever! Anyway, despite not being able to hear most of Tori’s vocal contributions, The Snowy Owls still sounded amazing, and they wrapped up this show on a high note.
WRIR and The Commonwealth Of Notions Presents is always a big event in Richmond’s music scene, and this year’s edition was no different. I wish I could have seen more of the shows that took place over the course of the four-day event, but if I was only going to make it to one, I definitely picked a good one to attend. If you weren’t there, you should make an effort to catch these bands live in the near future. Since (almost) all of them are local, you’ll surely have a chance soon.