Live: The Thermals Cover Nirvana at the Bell House


The Thermals
The Bell House
Saturday, January 31

Portland mid-tempo indie-punx The Thermals would have more fun if we let them be more comfortable in regular-rocker’s shoes. At a one-off show at the Bell House, they weren’t too cool to dance around like goofuses when “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” came on the P.A., they weren’t too cool to cover the Breeders (“Saints”) and Nirvana (No Alternative‘s “Sappy”), and they certainly weren’t too cool to bounce and bob at whatever tempos tickled their fancy — lead singer Hutch Harris, a jittery shaker; bassist Kathy Foster, a delicate groover.

But dudes always tempered their giddy, hyper-kinetic power-pop with a thick sheen of irony. Hey, it’s clear they love the ’90s. When an enthusiastic fan shouted for a song, Harris replied, “Oh it’s coming… We’re gonna bore you with a lot of new songs first.” Self-deprecating, sure, but kind of hilarious since all the new songs sound exactly like the old ones: glorious bubblegum mired in distortion. Their lyrics are usually literary spirals set against oppressive religions or environmental destruction. But all that mattered tonight was the stuff the approving audience could chant back: “Here’s your future!” or “Wait for me!” or “We were sick!” (The latter is a future classic off their upcoming fourth album, Now We Can See).

The audience loved their half-party/half-shirk games. They’re the perfect demographic for such classic irony, an audience too old for Matt & Kim, but still too young to care about who Elvis Costello is collaborating with right now. They bounced joyously and triumphantly, but only to the songs they recognized: “Here’s Your Future,” “How We Know,” the “hardly art, hardly garbage” one. They bounced in that polite, jovial way, like a pillow fight gone out of control. One lone crowd surfer was barely able to stay up.

When the encore broke at 2:15 a.m., Harris made fun of the stodgy dialogue on Cheap Trick At Budokan. “This next song… Is the first song… On our first album.” Cute, funny, ironic, and even universal enough that the young’ns who know it from the Beastie Boys record could recognize it. But should a band who plays encores be making fun of rock ritual? Dude, who cares, they played “It’s Trivia” and people went nuts. — Christopher R. Weingarten