Still Making Noise
Aesthetics aside, it's not terribly surprising that Weezer singer Rivers Cuomo's favorite rock group is KISS. Weezer's die-hard cult followers — mostly dorks of the post-grunge generation and millennial tweens — are the KISS Army of emo. And like KISS, Weezer has, thanks to some beige plastic power-pop, made dedicated fandom an increasingly frustrating endeavor over the past 13 years. And yet their classic Clinton-era "Blue Album" and its follow-up Pinkerton still endure. So in typical Weezer fashion, the band played each album over a pair of weekend shows at the Ryman, along with sets of, well, other songs.
On Saturday, we took our seats as riff-rocking power trio The Last Internationale (featuring Rage Against the Machine's still impressively youthful-looking Brad Wilk on drums) kicked into their classic-rock-cribbing jams. They were a bit like a female-fronted Black Rebel Motorcycle Club — although perhaps we're just saying that because their new single "Killing Fields" brought to mind the BRMC cut "Spread Your Love." This band is in no way reinventing the wheel — they're just affixing it to some familiar vehicles — but as far as openers are concerned, it was perfectly appropriate fare: some Rock Music to get a crowd of dweeby-skewing Rock Fans loosened up. Not that they weren't pretty loose to begin with — particularly the guy in the light-up Weezer cape.
And next, Weezer opened for Weezer. That is to say, the 21st century incarnation of Weezer played a set of their latter-day power-pop (or rather, power-pap) tunes in "reverse chronological order," working their way toward 1994. Hurley, Raditude, The Red Album, Maladroit and The Green Album were all represented, punctuated with little bursts of instrument- and vocal-swapping that to us seemed to betray a sense of boredom. Like, would Rivers have moved to drums for The Green Album's "Photograph" and a cover of Blur's "Song 2" if he weren't trying to keep himself interested in the material? The opening set closed with Pinkerton's genuinely wonderful "El Scorcho," a mostly acoustic and three-part-harmony-replete rendition of "Susanne" (the "Undone" B-side that Weezer would go on to play in Third Man Records' vintage record booth the following day) played while gathered around a single mic, and then the nostalgia-fetishizing new song "Back to the Shack."
During intermission, Weezer archivist/webmaster/historian/official bestie/hetero life mate Karl Koch narrated a rather precious slideshow that focused primarily on Cuomo & Co.'s earliest days. There were shots of the residence that housed the garage of "In the Garage" fame, fliers from places with names like Club Dump, photos of Cuomo with long hair and an early review calling the band a "Nirvana wannabe."
Every moment of the Blue Album set felt more potent than the entire set that preceded it, and we're not just saying that because we, along with everyone else, were viewing this part of the show through a lens of nostalgia. Gems like "The World Has Turned and Left Me Here" and "Surf Wax America" were written by a band untouched by stardom or boredom, not to mention the fact that they're frankly just a lot better than songs like "Dope Nose" and "Hash Pipe." The iconic, illuminated "W" replaced with a simple blue background and Cuomo now spec-less in a T-shirt, Weezer performed true-to-original versions of the Blue tunes without any instrument- or vocal-swapping parlor tricks. Well, almost. Brian Bell sang a little bit of "Holiday," and Cuomo's adorable 6-year-old daughter Mia played keys on "Buddy Holly." But otherwise — and aside from the fact that founding bassist Matt Sharp left the band in 1998 — these renditions were pretty much just what we heard at our first Weezer concert (opening for No Doubt at the since-demolished Starwood Amphitheater in June 1997), from the opening strains of "My Name Is Jonas" to the closing notes of "Only in Dreams."
For night two, in touristy downtown Nashville spirit, Cuomo performed much of the opening set while wearing a black cowboy hat. For the benefit of the many fans who hit up both shows, the grab-bag set was — save for show-theme-establishing opener "Memories" and the deplorably bro-country-worthy "Back to the Shack" — totally different song-selection wise, with first-night tunes switched out for counterpart singles. Sitting across the aisle from us, Nashville star Charles "Chip" Esten got way into the beach-ball frenzy during "Island in the Sun," which is totally something we could never see Deacon doing, right? Despite the variety, and as expected, Sunday's reverse-chronological countdown was mostly filler, no killer, with the exception of an inevitably nostalgic romp through "Buddy Holly" and the inclusion of the top-tier Pinkerton-era B-side "You Gave Your Love to Me Softly" — that totally kicked ass.
But the fervor elicited by songs like 2005's "Perfect Situation" was nothing compared to what met a front-to-back performance of the band's beloved 1996 sophomore-slumper Pinkerton, a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release that was kept alive by mythic fan appreciation. Eighteen years after its release, the album is a bona-fide coming-of-age classic that would be totally drained of reverence were the band to give songs like "No Other One" and "Pink Triangle" the goofy clown-college-rock treatment of their post-Y2K revues. Pinkerton is everything Cuomo has seemingly been running away from for the rest of Weezer's career since; it has all the raw emotion, vulnerability and rough-hewn soul-bearing that feels a million miles away from the detached, careerist bubblegum of shit like Raditude. As such, like Darth Vader unmasking to reveal a young Anakin Skywalker, when the band emerged post-intermission/slideshow presentation on Night 2, the difference was night and day. The Pinkerton performance was honest and reflective. We witnessed Weezer as they once were: great. As for the album itself — as it turns out, its lust-filled 10-song, three-act trajectory traversing self-doubt, hope and (ultimately) projection, failure and acceptance — never really gets old, even if we're not so young anymore.
As The Spin gave the secret handshake and made our way into the judges' chambers at Mercy Lounge and The High Watt for the final round of this year's Road to Bonnaroo competition series Monday night, the task at hand was to decide which of 10 strong local acts should represent Music City at Bonnaroo. We were not at all surprised to see one of the mightiest bands, the 11-member Kansas Bible Company, in the de facto headline spot, and sure enough, they carried the day. But their ultimate victory was far from a foregone conclusion.
Since the last time we saw Sol Cat, they released their Welcome to Cowabunga EP, on which they narrowed their focus and made their sound more distinctive. They sounded better than ever on Monday, with dark, fluid synth lines riding atop a dance-conscious backbone, stocked with beats we don't hear that often. Being first on the bill doesn't guarantee a rough time, but Sol Cat really didn't get off the ground until their last song. Throughout the competition, we've tried to include this important criterion in our judging: Would we voluntarily stand outside to watch this, in the summer heat, at noon, with a raging hangover? All Them Witches easily passed that test, obliging us with a much-needed heavy-psych boost. Equipped with well-worn, well-loved gear, they frothed and bubbled the slow-burning blues from some other delta, baked in the desert heat, searing guitar and eerie piano over a primal, swampy heartbeat.
In our pregame study, we weren't much impressed by Guthrie Brown and the Family Tree. It's only fair that the teenage transplant from Montana is still trying to find his voice. However, he's been doing some growing up since he landed support gigs with The Lumineers, locking into a country-tinged rock routine that recalls Uncle Tupelo and The Jayhawks. It's a good fit, and frankly refreshing in the wake of so much bland indie-folk-mericana. None of the songs really grabbed us, but the group's performance chops — bolstered by a mentor of some sort, hiding in the shadows offstage left and playing a ripping slide guitar — are certainly up to snuff, and we'll keep an ear on them. Little Bandit has pared back a bit on the old-school honky-tonk sound for which we've known them, moving closer to '70s country-rock hybrids. All of their parts were excellent, but it took until the final number for them to gel into a cohesive and outstanding whole. The arrangement opened up and made room for leader Alex Caress' voice and his three-woman chorus to really shine, along with a solid rhythm section and top-notch lead work.
Bowling Green natives Buffalo Rodeo showcased a fiery passion for performing and were clearly champing at the bit for this opportunity. They've recently had a taste of national touring, opening for The Weeks on the West Coast, and a Bonnaroo slot would suit them to a T. With dual coed vocals and a substantial rock-pop sound, they stirred up a little Fleetwood Mac flavor. They may not have won this time, but their energy will serve them well as they tackle the next opportunity that comes their way. Frances and the Foundation play so well together that they leave the impression of a telepathic connection, and each of the three members is a monster player on his or her own. However, we had a difficult time connecting with their songs through the onslaught of riffage. On the last tune, about an unhappy breakup, frontwoman Samantha Frances revealed a bit more of her own character, screaming and spitting her convictions with a fury that's hard put on.
Plastic Visions build on some concepts that worked for alt-rockers and plenty of their predecessors, turning the energy of teen angst into a powerful, cathartic spectacle. Guitars and drums were loud to the point of obnoxious, and frontman Kane Stewart wheeled and spun around, and the crowd started to follow his lead. We're absolutely in favor of keeping it simple, but their version of simple didn't click for us. Grass Root Kids don't really fit in our wheelhouse, but it's not for lack of effort. They're tight, focused and engaging, and they mobilized a substantial fan base, who cheered them on through a high-energy set infused with contemporary folk and rock. We were surprised they didn't crack the Top 3 in the fan poll. Bully frontlady Alicia Bognanno's sugar-pop confections and ringing no-frills riffs clambered along a sleek freight-train of a rhythm section. They may not have captured the Bonnaroo slot, but they're the local group best suited to open for indie-rock forefathers Superchunk this Friday, hands down.
Going into the last set, we were curious how Kansas Bible Company would fit on The High Watt's stage. Indeed, they didn't: Echoing winners past, they began with one member marching through the crowd with a snare drum before launching into a truncated version of their signature number "Jesus the Horse Thief." They filled their 15-minute set with anthemic rock 'n' soul that reached a fever pitch of near-metal intensity. Though the competition was stiff, they hit all the bases with fans and judges alike, carrying the top judges' vote and the No. 3 fan vote. Congratulations, gents: We'll see you in Centeroo.