The Celebrated Workingman: Cactus Club, 4th Of July

Thu Jul 09 2009

My review of the Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks headlining spot at the Red, White & Pabst Blue Ribbon fest is up on JamBase. This CWM show was one of many aftershows…

Following a tremendous set by The Jicks, I was imagining a sizeable crowd heading to the Cactus Club to continue the party with The Celebrated Workingman, even though there were competing shows all over the neighborhood (including John The Savage right across the street). The place was practically empty when we got there, though; perfect for plenty of pre-show conversation with folks I don’t see much of. The place was starting to fill up by the time We Are Your Father started up, though.

The group played a set of emotive, occasionally unglued blues rock. Initially, it was invigorating, a grungy wake-up from the indiejam daydream of Malkmus, and I was entranced by the maroon Gibson tones, but the group seemed to have exhausted itself after a couple of songs. The formula wore a bit thin as the show wore on, very Black Crowes but, as such, even less original. The final song of the set was almost a straight-up “Wanton Song” rip-off with a couple of Yardbirdsy codas tacked on. Overall, the generally unimaginative singing and unblinking, meaty riffs made for an enjoyable 1971 interlude, but I will say that the band may have the potential to set itself apart with lyrics. It was tough to glean much on this first time seeing the group, but my impression was of a definite modern, stream-of-consciousness bent, very unlike the painfully straightforward couplets of your typical latter-day Faces clone.

Next was my second experience with Orangutan!, Rochester, Minnesota’s seven-piece indie drone collective. Few bands have the confidence in their payoff hooks to commit so wholeheartedly to slow-burn pop music, but these songs never disappoint. In effect, these guys are like a lighthearted version of the Melvins, having a more obvious sort of fun; just as deliberate, just as subversive, but delightful and irony-free. Reminiscent of the Dirty Projectors in attitude, equally imaginative but much more exuberant. You get the impression that they are begging you to tell your friends, because they know, and you now know, how fun it is to be at their shows. They threw in a brilliant cover of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday”, almost pop-punk except with too many musicians, like The Vaselines cross-bred with PIL (that will be my final incongruous attempt at drawing parallels to Orangutan!’s style). Headliner Mark Waldoch came out to join the chorale for the group’s finale, a song about itself. Through the two shows I’ve seen so far, this band is a nonstop celebration.

The best way to experience CWM is to imagine it’s your first time; that way, it cannot help but be either promising or exultant. The nature of the music is such marginally-contained raw emotion that rough edges inevitably show, static from levels cranked too high. Yet the other thing you can count on is a genuine and blind-siding passion, and in time, it becomes a potent déjà-vu that overpowers any possibility of sloppiness. Earlier in the day, Waldoch had performed solo at RW&PBR, and the way he sings wrenches so much from him physically and emotionally, I would have been pretty surprised to see him in peak form tonight. There were times when he went out on a limb and reached the fruit, there were times when he couldn’t bring himself to grab for it. The band responded in kind, alternately confident and wavering, and when it all came together, as evidenced in the closer, “Opening Night”, it was as glorious as can be. New drummer Joe Kirschling had big shoes to fill, honestly; as the drummer, you have to try and corral all that potential messiness into a coherent statement, and he did an admirable job of it tonight. It was nowhere near the best CWM show I’ve seen, but this band just plays to my sensibilities. If it had been my first…I’d still have become a fan all over again.
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