Vivian and Spence and I walked into the Croc at about 9:30 and saw Lora; we sat down and started chatting. Lora is a funny person and our conversation was predictably amusing. She noted that Freda had been kind enough to put us on the list, which was great news because it meant I could afford the band’s CDs.
As I noted earlier in the week, I have been hearing cuts from the Some Girls record on WFHB via the internet all week long and was really looking forward to seeing them. I learned the afternoon of the show that another Hoosier band, The Pieces (who hail from Indianapolis) were touring with Freda and Juliana’s band.
I knew that Heidi Gluck played bass for both bands and had heard occasional positive things from Indiana about the band, which also features Damon Ashley and Vess Ruhtenberg. I had been acquainted with Vess when he was just finishing high school in Indy via my then girlfriend, and knew that over the years people back home always spoke highly both of Vess and his various projects, among which number the United States Three (whom I’ve never heard, but which was well-loved) and (notably in my recollection) the later incarnations of the Zero Boys.
Now, the Zero Boys were always Paul Mahern’s band, and when I heard a cut or two from the Pieces CD I thought “that sounds like Mahern produced it.” Mahern, who has changed his name to Mahan Kalpa of late to reflect his spiritual practices, has always been a meticulous studio producer; his work on the Zero Boys classic ‘Vicious Circle,’ in combination with his crisp, cerebral, and structural approach to songwriting, are what made the record stand out amid the great hardcore wave of the late eighties.
Paul is also a generous person, who has kindly and repeatedly shared his talents and resources with me and others over the years, from helping find places to stay in Indianapolis when I was a teenager to sharing his knowledge of music and recording techniques. The only other person who comes to mind in terms of considering influence in the development of independent Hoosier music over the past twenty years is, whaddya know, Dale Lawrence.
Mahern (now Kalpa, but I’ll continue to refer to him by his original name in this entry) went on to develop a series of projects that I treasure my recordings of, such as Dandelion Abortion and the Datura Seeds. Eventually, I heard that he’d moved to Bloomington and was working on numerous projects including John Mellencamp’s most recent records, which made sense to me. While Mellencamp’s down-home image was off-putting for me and my pals when we were kids, I’ve re-evaluated his songwriting and feel that it has a great deal in common with the work of other Indiana artists whose work I admire; Paul’s structural sense and his demonstrated ability to develop deep, clean recordings seem to me well-suited to Mellencamp’s material.
So it was a treat to know that I’d be able to renew my acquaintance with Vess, and of course Spencer and Lora (good pals with Vess in high-school – Spencer, if I understand this correctly, either opened for or attended the very first gig of Vess’ very first band, JOT, a band I saw plenty of times around 1984 to 1986) were looking forward to seeing him as well.
We had an enjoyable round of catch up and conversation during which my long-held misconception, that there were TWO Ruhtenbergs, was dispelled. We met Devon, The Pieces‘ drummer, as well. Heidi was around but hanging out with the merch.
Soon enough it was time to head for the showroom, and there’s no other way to put this – we were absolutely BLOWN AWAY. It’s a treat to see an old friend play music. It’s much more of a treat to see an old friend present perfectly constructed songs executed with a level of tightness and deep arrangements that expand the boundaries of pop and rock. It was amazing.
The three musicians frequently provided perfectly executed six-part arrangements; three-part vocal lines on top of discrete rhythm and lead elements. Vess’ years as a journeyman lead player provide his playing with a facilty and fluency, both under vocals and in a solo, which is rare enough; more rare, and more valuable, is the disciplined manner in which he deployed his technique.
The contrast between the chunky, careful structures of the songs themselves and Vess’ concise, atonally expressive, risk-taking leads yielded a tension that was dramatic and emotionally satisfying at the same time.
In certain songs, the close-harmony work recalled the Byrds as the jagged, structural basis of the song proper recalled the early work of Gang of Four. Adding to the interest, the referential qualities of the songs appeared to offer direct acknowledgements to any number of precursor bands, including, yes, the Beatles. For me personally the successful fusion of Gang of Four style atonal and rhythmic qualities with the deeply traditionalist sources that McGuinn and others were mining is a wonderful accomplishment.
The set was enthralling. Highlights included “The Wait,” and Heidi’s performance of “Lauren.” Looking around the woefully underpopulated club, it was clear that the band was truly reaching the audience. The slight, stunned pause before the raucous applause at song’s end was evidence enough. Vess’ relaxed, engaging stage persona was not noticeably different from his amusing table conversation and evident generosity as a performer.
He made a point of stating that they’d be returning to Seattle, which I can’t wait for, and after the show I recall him mentioning that they’d recorded the performance. I was kicking myself for not borrowing Greg’s minidisc recorder during the whole set, and hope that I’ll be able to lay hands on the audio of the show.
We missed the first couple songs of Some Girls, talking to Vess in the bar (where he shared the sad news that original Zero Boys guitarist Terry Howe had passed away) but scurried back to the showroom when we realized they’d started.
It was fun to see the women playing; I’ve always enjoyed Freda’s drums, and I knew, as well, that the songs they were set to perform included many that she’d helped to write or written entire. The exposure to the record I had via WFHB was a real bonus; and when they played a Mysteries of Life song, which I sadly forget the name of, (UPDATE: it was “When I Let My Guard Down”) I shouted out for more, and was most surprised when another audience member echoed my call.
We introduced ourselves and I gave him a card. He attended school in Bloomington, stayed there for a year thereafter, and made his way out here. He was as enthusiastic about Indiana music as I am. If you’re out there, Eric, get in touch!
The band seemed a bit tired, however, and the set didn’t really gel until the last half, following Hatfield’s introduction to Freda’s great song, “Nothing Ever Happens.” Something clicked in the emotional dynamic of the band at that point and the rest of the set had a verve and heartfelt quality.
(UPDATE: The set list posted over at the Some Girls board has “Nothing Ever Happens” next to last, so obviously it was some other song that kicked it over. What can I say? There was beer-consumption involved.)
I’ve neglected to discuss in detail the playing and presence of Heidi Gluck in both bands. She sings lead on several Pieces numbers and her bass lines and singing voice contributed heavily to the success of the show. For me, as Some Girls closed the evening with an interesting, delicately arranged, and emotionally effective cover of Robert Johnson’s “Malted Milk,” I found my self focusing on her as she played harmonica, eyes closed, leaning back, and looking as though she was squeezing the winds of the Canadian plains through her slight frame.
As the song progressed, in several places it dropped away to a whisper. Some oblivious drunks were shouting at each other about their breakfast plans. Gluck’s eyes opened, seeing the disturbance, and then she returned to her performance. At that moment it was clear to me that her skills and specific presence as a performer – a combination of soulful reflectiveness, vulnerability, and remarkable chops – make her uniquely valuable as a musician and performer. Both Some Girls and the Pieces are extremely fortunate to count her as a member, and hope she’ll take the opportunity to extend and explore her charisma and muse onstage.
(UPDATE: The band actually closed with “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” and I think the event described above happend during that song.)