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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Live: XTC comes to the Cat's Cradle Back Room, kind of

Posted by on Tue, Sep 8, 2015 at 5:05 PM

click to enlarge Roger Gupton - PHOTO BY DAVID KLEIN
  • Photo by David Klein
  • Roger Gupton
Vagabond Saints' Society Play XTC's Skylarking
Cat's Cradle (Back Room), Carrboro
Saturday, September 5, 2015

Serious lovers of XTC have been carrying the torch for the Swindon, England, foursome since the band emerged at the height of new wave with an angular style that soon morphed into something richer and stranger. Few American fans ever saw the band perform—its last live concert was in 1982—but musicians have set out to re-create the recorded sound of XTC for longer than you might think. The first major such event occurred at Fez in New York City in 2003, part of Joe McGinty’s Loser’s Lounge series.

Doug Davis, the leader of Winston-Salem’s Vagabond Saints’ Society, missed the show, but he was in New York at the time and did discover Loser’s Lounge and its tribute nights to music and genres of a certain stripe. A re-creation of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the music of film composer John Barry, cult songwriter Lee Hazlewood, girl groups, weirdo producer Joe Meek—the Lounge had an aesthetic of its own and the skills to make it work. When Davis left New York and returned to Winston-Salem, he started his own Loser’s Lounge-like operation of three, and called it Vagabond Saints’ Society.

Last weekend, the Society left the familiar confines of Winston for the Cat’s Cradle Back Room, providing the first chance for many to hear the glorious blare of XTC ringing big and loud in a darkened room. Kicking off with a rousing “Respectable Street” from 1980’s English Settlement, the set list cherry-picked gem after gem from XTC’s canon, pulling from every phase of the band’s career, including the work of its nom de psychedelia, Dukes of Stratosphear. It was a long time coming, but there we all were, finally able to join in on choruses heretofore restricted to our own bedrooms: “This is pop!” “La La Londinium!” “Life begins at the hop, boys and girls…”

The toughest role to fill for these would-be re-creators of XTC songs would seem to be that of vocalist. These songs are a lot easier to marvel at, or hum in one’s head, than they are to sing. They require an expansive range, and while the band never faltered, a few vocals struggled a bit with pitch and high notes. Somehow that only served to underscore the uniqueness of Andy Partridge’s melodic palette. (Songs by the other key songwriter, bassist Colin Moulding, seem to present less of a challenge). Several performances were especially memorable; Stu McLamb tore up “Life Begins at the Hop.” Andrea and Pete Connolly of Birds and Arrows wrung new meaning out of the divine “Love on a Farmboy’s Wages,” turning it into a duet and making good on the song’s “we” perspective. “Stupidly Happy,” from the band’s final LP, Wasp Star, filled the room with the title sensation, as singer Lee Wallace and multi-instrumentalist Susan Terry broke into joyous pogoing. Tenor-voiced Lonnie Richardson handled “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” with aplomb. The set ended with Roger Gupton leading a spirited take on “Mayor of Simpleton,” one of XTC’s most perfect, shoulda-been-bigger singles. 

click to enlarge Andrea Connolly - PHOTO BY DAVID KLEIN
  • Photo by David Klein
  • Andrea Connolly
Our thirst having been properly whetted, we awaited the opening of side 1 of Skylarking (named, according to Partridge, to connote “the sound of an English summer, skylarks singing over the fields”) during the second set. When the lights went down and that first chirp came, a sound of pure approval spread through the half-full Back Room. It’s one of those records that any XTC fan knows inside out, especially because one song deftly segues into the next, and each has its own distinct mood and instrumentation. Clearly, with personnel changing from song to song, it would not be possible to honor those magic segues by producer Todd Rundgren. It would also be tough to know when to applaud.

Nevertheless, the inexorable pull of the running order was enough to provide a through line and a sense of anticipation. The record’s chamber music twofer (“Ballet for a Rainy Day,” “1,000 Umbrellas”) was especially transfixing. String accompaniment from Terry on viola, violinist Laura Thomas and cellist Alex Johnston transported us to some whimsically damp English countryside. The show ended on a high note with “Dear God,” the record’s unlikely American hit, sung with dramatic flair by Tim Beeman and plaintive clarity by teenage vocalist Bella Lambert.

Presiding over it all, and looking quite Colin Moulding-ish in his black conductor’s cap, Doug Davis handled guitar and keyboard duties, sang solo and group vocals, and kept the multi-armed evening flowing with admirably few hitches. He looked like he was having as much fun as anyone, and he was, because this is what he lives to do.

When I checked in with him the following day, he was off to play a set of Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello covers. Who knows where that might lead…

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