October 7, 2000
Versus / Mary Timony / Franklin Bruno @ Middle East (Cambridge, MA)
was to be published by Gigmania.com
You can’t call it nostalgia if it ends up looking forward. Sure, Franklin Bruno made a small joke about the night’s bill being a “Who’s Who of Indie Rock” circa 1993, but it wasn’t a comment that held any regret or sadness. In those supposedly halcyon days of the underground, Franklin was best known as the front man & songwriter for Nothing Painted Blue.His trademark in those days was his unique lyrics – intelligent, eclectic,scatological, and most often lovelorn. That hasn’t changed much in the past seven years. What has changed, however, is the backdrop of these marvelous lyrics.
Tonight, Daniel Brodo joined Franklin on stand-up bass. The evening’s set was comprised entirely of Franklin’s solo material – a request for a Nothing Painted Blue song was shot down by Franklin, noting that “that’s a different band”. That claim might seem flippant, but there’s a truth within it that becomes apparent after listening to a few songs. Taking the gentle lament of “Just Because It’s Dying”, or the insisted sway of Franklin’s don’t-let-the-bastards-get-you-down anthem “Idiots”,out of their bass and guitar setting would only weaken the songs. This sparse arrangement allows the strength of Franklin’s words and melodies to become readily apparent. Franklin spent some of the between-song banter apologizing for his performance, a totally unnecessary gesture. Whether he was playing a Jerry Vale cover (the remarkably concise “Two Purple Shadows”) or playing more of his show-tune-influenced originals (like the rollicking forbidden romance ditty “Love’s Got a Ghetto”), Franklin acquitted himself quite nicely. The highlight of the show was a new song entitled “Janet Shaw”, a ballad about a “contract ingénue” with “no box office draw” whose face and work are almost completely forgotten. Franklin’s lyrics tell the story of him finding some publicity stills at a garage sale, and digging up her filmography and other details about herlife. It’s a heartbreaking character study, and as spellbinding a performance as one is likely to ever witness.
Mary Timony has also been known to cast spells, but of a different variety. When she first emerged (as the head of Helium), her songs were both caustic and cerebral, with their impressionistic lyrics and thick, plodding guitarwork. Her work has matured somewhat, its initial anger giving way to a more measured, classical approach, and its guitar-noise aesthetic allowing for more instrumentation and varying emotion. Her latest released, Mountains, is also her first solo album, and arguably herbest work – it’s a concise amalgam of Helium’s youthful aggression and the group’s latter calm. Her live show usually bears this out – she jumps from electric piano to guitar to viola, sure-handed on all three instruments, while Christina Files (from the excellent Boston rock outfit Victory At Sea) plays drums.Tonight, however, her performance lacked both the force and restraint of previous performances – she seemed both tentative and rough, which led to messy,shapeless performances of otherwise excellent songs. The final song she performed was endemic of this – it was a slab of noise of indeterminable length, with Mary mouthing off to the microphone like a medicated Mark E. Smith. It was an unfortunate off night for a usually dependable performer.
Thankfully, Versus didn’t suffer from this malaise. Touring behind their first full-length album in 2 years (the Merge Records release Hurrah), Versus rocked with the power and economy that’s always marked their best work. The new songs they played (guitarist Richard Balyut’s “Eskimoon Ice”, bassist Fontaine Toups’ “You’ll Be Sorry”) showed the growing strength of the group’s songwriting. However, it was when Versus dug into their back catalog (with”Mercy Killing”, from Secret Swingers, or “Underground” and “MorningGlory”, from Two Cents Plus Tax) that the crowd really got into the music. Versus seemed to enjoy the older songs as well, tearing into them with zest and aplomb. The group seemed loose and confident on stage – Richard,Fontaine, and even 2nd guitarist James Balyut switched off on vocals,and the mini rock epic “Frederick’s of Hollywood” featured a Gregorian chant-like interlude, with arms raised in praise and mouths agape. You almost expected some dwarf Druids to dance around a miniature Stonehenge. The groups’ 2 song encore showcased the best of Versus’ range. The first song wasa ballad with country overtones, featuring Richard affecting a near-croon.The second song was”B-9″, a scorching number off their first album, TheStars Are Insane. When the crowd caught wind of what was happening, itcheered, waiting for the song’s inevitable climax to erupt. The pastis nice to visit, but it’s the future that’s more exciting.