It was hot in The Cave Saturday night; with dozens of people packed into the front room to see both John Howie Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff and Magnolia Collective play, the room felt like a rainforest, albeit altered by the smell of beer and mixed drinks. In short, it was the perfect spot to see a country band on a Saturday night. There was even a little dancing.
Magnolia Collective's story-oriented Americana-rock inspired a good bit of appreciative bounce in the front of the room. After a quick changeover, Howie and his band kicked off their Everything Except Goodbye LP release set, appropriately starting with album opener "The Man I Used to be." The song—and much of the set—rode infectious country grooves. The band leaned into rock but always kept at least one worn leather boot in honky-tonk territory.
(Video by Dan Schram)
Last week, Howie spoke with the INDY about his own honky-tonk roots, leading back long before the formation of his celebrated previous act Two Dollar Pistols to his late dad's penchant for outlaw country. Much of his life, it seems, has been steeped in this tragic, lonesome music, and he's right at home crooning about heartbreak in a crowded, sweaty bar. Headlong rollick and upbeat western swing defined much of the set, with Howie's big-bodied Gibson jumbo laying a chunky, acoustic foundation for guitarist Tim Shearer's Telecaster runs. Pedal steel player Nathan Golub loomed intently over his instrument, while animated bassist Billie Feather peered playfully around both sides of her upright and cracked jokes. Southern Culture on the Skids drummer Dave Hartman lent a hybrid rockabilly/honky-tonk backbone in lieu of Rosewood Bluff drummer Matt Brown, who died in 2012.
Various Venues, Winston-Salem
April 4-6, 2014
When Philip Pledger arrived at Krankies Coffee in Winston-Salem on Friday night to lead his Estrangers through the second set of last weekend’s Phuzz Phest, he looked exhausted. He was decked in a rumpled T-shirt and comfortably worn jorts, but his stony face clashed with his casual clothing.
It had been a rough day for Pledger. Chapel Hill’s Secret Boyfriend, scheduled to play the following day, dropped out, citing allegations of sexual misconduct lobbed at Justin Williams, the frontman of Twelve Thousand Armies, another band on the lineup and the first signee to Pledger's new Phuzz Records. Area social media exploded with angered music fans clamoring for Williams to be dismissed from the festival and the label, which indeed happened after the fact. (Read more about Williams and the situation in our new story "Broken Record.")
But at the time, Pledger was staring down a situation that threatened his event—expanded to include simultaneous shows at three rock clubs across three days in its fourth year—and fledgling imprint. He could have played it angry. He could have fallen apart. But he did neither, eventually overcoming persistent mic problems to lead his backers through swelling hooks with an easygoing confidence. When the vocal mix finally solidified during the yearning chorus of “New Year’s Eve,” it felt like a triumph, the striding riffs and nostalgic piano chords refusing to yield as Pledger finally yelled.
Phuzz Phest, it turned out, wouldn’t shrink in the face of its first real crisis. There were rough patches across the next three days, but there were also splendid highs and a generally buzzing atmosphere. Even when the crowds waned a bit—as they did during the majority of Sunday evening—the people that were there listened appreciatively to scrappy locals and regional upstarts alike, excitedly awaiting performances from the weekend’s headliners.
For the most part, those bigger bands didn’t disappoint. No Age’s blitz of fuzz-scorched punk blew the lid off of Krankies on Saturday night. Hewing to the more pummeling end of their catalog, the duo banged and roared, delivering bolts of energy that were pretty much impossible to resist.
Mount Moriah were even better closing down the Garage the night before. Embracing the grimy dive around them, they switched into hard-driving, honky-tonk mode, sending their often stately country-rock rumbling down rowdy backroads. Singer Heather McEntire owned the moment, emboldening her honest lyrics with moments of wry humor; noticing Pledger’s wife in the audience, she recalled playing their wedding, noting dryly that it was a good sign that they were still together. Her fiery vocals goaded guitarist Jenks Miller to complicate his sometimes restrained contributions, soloing in a way that was forceful but never showy.
But the headliners weren’t the only ones delivering thrills. Punk outfits Ex-Cult and Brain F≠ each indulged in mighty workouts—the former creating tension between the band’s lean grooves and Chris Shaw’s burly bark, the latter ratcheting through a cyclonic melee. Winston’s own Dark Prophet Tongueless Monk pushed beyond the lulling drone it’s known for, adding drums to the immersive textures of leader Jacob Leonard and careening into noise-scorched garage rock and frothy pop. Raleigh’s Whatever Brains once again jump-roped the line between cacophony and catharsis.
Despite all these great sets, the festival started to drag in its final hours. After Whatever Brains finished, there was a 45-minute lag before revered rapper Kool Keith took the stage at Ziggy’s. The room wasn’t even half-full, with groggy attendees chatting aimlessly. By the time Keith did greet the small crowd, I was on my way out the door, headed back to the Garage to catch the first bit of Nashville’s Diarrhea Planet before embarking on a three-hour trek back to South Carolina and the start of my work week.
And the festival ended just like it started, overcoming its own impediments to deliver one more surprising moment. The band’s mass of guitars lent a thick squall to their roughed-up classic rock delivery, like Titus Andronicus without all the theatricality and nihilism. As the set revved up, the band paused, pulling a skinny kid named Justin from the front row. Explaining their intention to demonstrate what punk is all about, they instructed their volunteer to scream about whatever pissed him off the most, and when the music erupted, so did Justin—“Fuck you, dad!” he screamed again and again as those guitars surged anew.
A few years ago, people might have said that moments like this one just don’t happen in Winston. In its fourth year, Phuzz Phest made them feel not just possible, but expected.
Friday, Jan. 31
At 9:15 on Friday night, The Pixies took the stage at DPAC and proceeded to play what seemed like their entire back catalog. There was hardly a break between songs, with little room for banter as the band charged through a set crowded with Gen X-and-sometimes-Y sing-alongs such as "Here Comes Your Man," "Monkey Gone to Heaven" and "Where is My Mind?" While it took champion-level stamina on the band's part to play a nonstop, high-energy set for the better part of two hours, the evening took on a surreal, disorienting quality as the partially reunited Pixies (bassist Kim Deal bowed out last year) piled on hit after hit. It started to feel less like Death to The Pixies and more like death by The Pixies.
There were plenty of songs they nailed—"Gouge Away," "Cactus," "La La Love You" and "Caribou"—and the notably taciturn bandleader Black Francis looked genuinely happy after both the set and the encore. He smiled and waved. But like the strange afterlife that bands in perpetual reunion seem to inhabit, it was an imperfect affair, with the absurdly crowded set punctuated with flashes of brilliance and human jukebox moments alike.
As Jeff Klingman wrote in this week's issue of the INDY, The Pixies' DPAC show fell within an expanding ecosystem of reunions by influential bands such as Outkast and Neutral Milk Hotel, who also stoked nostalgia in the Triangle this weekend. And while I share Klingman's trepidation, considering The Pixies' near-endless reunion purgatory (which started in 2004, really) and their rapid turnover of touring bassists following Deal's departure, I—like many other 30-somethings—wanted to believe. After all, this is a band that I loved uncritically in my teen years, as one tends to do with music discovered at that age.
But The Pixies were already well past their heyday when I first picked up Doolittle in 1999, and I'm willing to bet that plenty of other 32-year-olds at DPAC last Friday would tell a similar tale if pressed. While they've always felt like my music, they were already influential and highly regarded by the time they hooked me, their legacy predetermined at my late arrival. And 15 more years have passed from that moment, shifting the band further into the rock legends pantheon.
I think that's where much of my discomfort stemmed from: This stage show was pure arena rock. A two-story wall of orange strobes transformed "Isla de Encanta" into something ludicrous, unnecessarily macho and unintentionally hilarious. Throughout, the absence of any sort of banter caused growing unease. I couldn't tell whether the band had eschewed conversation so they could squeeze in as many songs as possible or—as Klingman implied—showed up just for the paycheck.
I have no idea which is true, but I know that the night, from the good moments to the unfortunate ones, was defined by dissonance—the musical kind on which The Pixies made their name and the cognitive kind that this sort of time-capsule concert can inspire. The Pixies were always a band of imperfect elements coming together to form a striking, infectious whole, so the net effect worked beautifully. There's something bizarre about going full-bore nostalgic, and maybe the disorientation and overstimulation came from the band giving the audience exactly what it wanted: all the hits.