Now Playing: Veronica Falls--"Come On Over"
Shortly after I started blogging, almost seven years ago, I began hitting shows at Brandon Zwagerman's Madison House, a pastime which heavily involved me in local music, if only as a connoisseur. My own musical talent extends to a few songs and accompaniments on harmonica and a fearsome vocal impression of the late, lamented Bob "The Bear" Hite of Canned Heat. Nevertheless, I wound up attending the living crap out of shows in Ann Arbor and loving most every second. After a year or so of off-and-on depression, the tremendous proliferation of music in the area not only filled something of a void in my life but also brought me into contact with many of the friends I have today. Ann Arbor can be a pretty cold, unfriendly town to someone with no prior connections to the place, as I was in my first few years, and the sheer novelty of haivng a social life came as a heady, near-ecstatic rush.
Even as familiarity bred the eventual decay of my enthusiasm, the initial pleasure I took in the scene itself and the music it provided never entirely evaporated. It certainly marked a new chapter in my relationship with music. As early as middle school, I became so bored with the current pop tunes (around 1985-86) that I largely withdrew from any interaction with such, preferring to immerse myself in the classics--i.e. the sixties and seventies--and commence my ongoing education in orchestral music. When the nineties blessedly arrived, I largely bypassed grunge and, thanks to the help of my friend Emily and others, got into Britpop, shoegaze and Riot Grrl. I mention the movements, but they all manifested largely as single bands: Blur, Lush, and Sleater-Kinney. There were still huge gaps in my own musical history and appreciation: I was almost wholly unacquainted with punk and the lore of new wave until I got to grad school, where expert tutelage was this time courtesy of my friend Matt. At Akron, I got to know of a couple of local bands (and know one pretty well). One, the House Popes, was a folk/country, Americana outfit composed largely of grad school friends and acquaintances. Another, Disengage, was a punk-metal fusion act partly led by my favorite record store clerk. Apart from them, though, there didn't seem to be much of a scene, at least one I can either remember or discern (naturally, the Black Keys became deservedly huge a couple of years after I left). The unfolding panoply in Washtenaw County, on the other hand, was heavily laden with folk and alt-country bands and musicians (with outliers such as the Ultrasounds, Starling Electric, and Saturday Looks Good To Me), and thence I gravitated, having had little interest in that kind of music before. The end of the Madison House shows, various band breakups and personnel changes, and simple shifts in personal taste, led me away from the close-knit wonder of those Friday and Saturday nights, especially when I realized that I had been caught up in local music to such an extent that I lost track of much any other music, and started hurriedly making up the omission.
Ever since, I don't think I'd ever really gone to see a show sound-unheard at the Blind Pig. Before my local introductions, I'd gone there all the time, to hear both pop acts like Saturday Looks Good To Me and a great number of Detroit area garage acts, the latter trying to keep the vitality of the sound strong in the wake of the White Stripes' troubling "slash-and-burn" international success (probably my favorite night in Ann Arbor prior to the blog's birth was the No Fun Records Showcase Night at the Pig, 16 October 2004). During and after my... relations? with the great wave of folk and alt-country, though, I'd rarely gone to see anyone there except for the aforementioned outliers--one of which broke up, one of which went on a three-year hiatus, and one of which moved to Chicago. In the interim, my social life had gone through a few changes and I'd stopped going out as much, especially when it came to just dropping in on random acts at what was still Ann Arbor's main pop/rock venue.
That changed the other night, when Scottish band Veronica Falls came to the Pig, with San Francisco's Brilliant Colors and SLGTM head honcho Fred Thomas' latest project, Swimsuit, for openers. I'd been planning to hear Swimsuit anyway, and after hearing a few Veronica Falls songs online (they sound like a higher-fi Vaselines at times) and then learning that a few of my friends were going, decided to check it out. Truth be told, I missed my old habits just a little, and after a few months of living in a somewhat restrictive (though highly productive) hibernation, I was ready for something exactly like that.
The night started at Jolly Pumpkin Brewery, itself a link to my past as it inhabits the space formerly disgraced (in a retrospectively hilarious way) by Don Carlos Mexican Cantina, where I worked when first moving to Ann Arbor. It's a wonderful space, home to a number of failed businesses over the years, and it's a delight to see the Dexter-based brewery finally make a success of the place. I met Shelly and Stever there, we talked horror films, music, work, and Courtney Love (specifically her grimly amusing alibi for the death of Frances Bean's pets), and then we met Josh, Carla and Rachel at the Pig. I contented myself with a couple of beers, and almost on arrival knew I wasn't going to last the night, and was perfectly fine with it. It was a strange feeling, considering how much I used to anticipate the event and then relish the crowd, the spectacle, and the music. I'd perch at a table and read or write while everyone swirled around me, and then we'd all head up to the front and listen to the band (I did it less once I actually knew people, but it's still a habit, one I highly recommend). I wound up leaving halfway through the Veronica Falls set, right around midnight. Though part of my "hurry" was down to overfamiliarity with the environment and the fact that I'd been up for almost twenty-four hours, there was another factor. "Yes, I am going now. It's after 2009."
Swimsuit was fine, stripped-down indie-pop that felt rather more introspective and spikier than SLGTM, including Dina Bankole of Secret Twins (a group I'd wanted to hear live but never did) on guitar, and was a decent entry for the local scene in this unusually global lineup. Veronica Falls was almost certainly going to be good, and they were (I felt little compunction over getting the CD even before they went on). The sound spanned decades of influence, the lo-fi fuzz of the 90s linked with pre-grunge influences like the Vaselines (the Scottish connection may have affected my thoughts on that one). Listening to it now, it gives me a pleasantly hazy feeling. It's not one that'll go up in the pantheon, but it's a great marshaling of past sounds for a present (or almost present) year. The big surprise, and one that might hit my big time, was Brilliant Colors. For some reason, they're a little hard to describe. I can only say that I danced harder at the Pig than I have in a very, very long time, and that's taking into account how little I've gone there in the past few years. I remember that the consistency of my frenzy matched a Dirtbombs show I saw there in 2005, and that hardly ever happens. They had no CDs, sadly--it's weirdly touching how many bands seem to expect everyone to have vinyl capability--but I'll be getting one soon, hell or high water.
It's unclear whether I'll make it much of a habit again. There's lots of good stuff out there if you know where to look, and most of the scene I previously frequented has relocated (their shows, anyway) to Ypsilanti, especially around Woodruff's in Depot Town. I also have to keep asking myself how vital music really is to me, or at least the kind of music you have to follow through online sources. My friend at work and I had a conversation about keeping up with the times; we hadn't really found a lot of good new stuff recently (the best stuff I encountered in last year, at least before discovering St. Vincent, consisted of new releases from existing favorite acts). Is it really that important to stay new and current? I think so, to a certain extent, if only to get the full effect of the historical and cultural moment. If you shut yourself off, you sell yourself short. Especially with longtime favorites of mine getting sweet writeups in area outlets, it's hard for me to justify losing or compromising this passion for the new that it took so long for me to discover. So there'll probably be quite a few more of these, even if I have to watch a few more sitcoms first.