Strapping Fieldhands w/Escape By Ostrich, Harpoon Forever, Aaron Rosenblum
Ding Dong Lounge
Saturday, July 28
Better than: Being in the maze.
There aren’t many people actively watching the bands at the Ding Dong Lounge on Saturday night, though the music doesn’t get ignored either. In one part of the room, a bachelorette party proceeds with proper drunkenness and high fives. Elsewhere, patrons shoot pool. The tabletop Galaga/Ms. Pac-Man twofer sees some action. And a few dozen people stand in a loose arc around the small stage watching subterranean rock lifers and future-lifers go through their Saturday night paces. If the audience makes up the majority of the people in the Upper West Side bar, it’s only by a slim margin, but it’s a small bar. But it is also totally not depressing, despite the lack of spectacle or even raucousness on the part of the bands or crowd. Each faction in the bar seems in rare and perfect harmony with the others.
Harpoon Forever, a quartet of Rutgers students with the irrepressible Life-Size Cut-Out 7-inch (Bleeding Gold), tic through a 20-minute set, so worried about the dead time between songs that they endearingly charge from one to the next. The foursome—led by songwriter Alex Goldstein—make the kind of unflashy indie-pop that feels tossed off if not for their songs’ recurring charm. The title refrain of “Cruel Story of Youth” is pretty much the only part of its lyrics that are intelligible, but those words make its left-turn transitions and jangle-fuzz evocative. Further proof that they know what they’re doing comes when they finish with their EP’s best song, the pleading “Blue Jay,” which ends with a lightning-tight drop-out by band members until Goldstein remains by himself, and only then for a few bars. True to form, they pack up quickly.
The small crowd shifts, spitting a few more musicians onto the stage and a few others back to the bar. Miraculously, as always, it seems that rock and roll isn’t dead. But there are times when rock isn’t sexy, popular, or on its way to or from success or influence or shock, when it remains the small-scale personal expression of small groups of people. In these places, rock hangs pleasantly as one of the last un-self-conscious and incorruptible realms of traditional music left in America, and—perhaps its greatest source of strength—one that also veritably mandates change. It seems to have found a home at the off-the-radar Ding Dong Lounge on the Upper West Side. Opened in 2001, the place looks like it’s been there much, much longer, sustaining itself more as a bar than a music venue, just as—probably—all of the musicians on the bill make their livings as something besides musicians.
Next up is Escape By Ostrich, with musicians from a long line of New York bands stretching back to the late ’70s, and there is nothing tossed off about their performance at all. “We regarded music as a form of socializing,” wrote Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema in a history of Mofungo, the band he played in with Escape By Ostrich’s primary songwriter Willie Klein and bassist Chris Nelson. They are on the other side of their arc as Harpoon Forever, youth long since gone, but hardly cruel at all. Their dense constructions sound both conversational and instinctual atop Klein’s chunky punk/funk/twang, thanks in no small part to Bob Banister’s lead guitar, which makes Klein’s flutterings sound as natural as classic rock.
The band—which titles its songs in numbered sequence—is part of an ongoing conversation that also includes Nelson’s long-running The Scene Is Now, who played Fontana’s a few backs back. “The famous ‘Song #31’,” Klein remarks after one. If Mofungo’s idiosyncratic smarts sounded out-of-time in the post-Minutemen/pre-alt ’80s despite Nelson’s bona fides as the dude who (probably) coined the term “No wave” via his NO zine, Klein’s songs actually do sound a bit closer to the zeitgeist now, his avant-splatterings and voice-cracks passing through a territory not terribly far from the Dirty Projectors. Escape By Ostrich—a Leonard Part VI reference, maybe?—dust off “Do the Ostrich,” the Lou Reed curiosity from his days as a house songwriter at Long Island indie label Pickwick; this reveals their lineage as traditional as the rest, no matter how far their minds might a-ramble down rock’s freedom highway.
Strapping Fieldhands, meanwhile, had their first run in the early ’90s with a series of singles and EPs on Siltbreeze, where (like sometime-tourmate Bob Pollard) songwriter Bob Malloy adapted the highly American tradition of singing in a faux-British accent. While bodies age and exotic fresh-faced charisma hardens into the features of adulthood—the general postscript to youth’s cruel story—Strapping Fieldhands pull the always refreshing trick of sounding exactly as discombobulated and expansive as their recordings. What sounds loose on record suddenly becomes authoritative, a rush of sound that makes it quickly obvious why Malloy and company had to—have to—keep going.
With so many bands forming and re-forming, so many new and old recordings to discover, and so many outlets to listen (and broadcast), micro-cultures inevitably proliferate. That is, the guys in Harpoon Forever clearly remain thrilled throughout the night to be playing with veterans like Escape By Ostrich and Strapping Fieldhands, but that fact probably doesn’t mean a lot to anybody else. There are plenty of people in the room who aren’t musicians, too, but—despite the stage and volume—the music is less for them than it is for the bands themselves, and maybe even less for the bands than the universe at large. The show is both a reaffirmation of shared world away from all the lameness as well as the world itself, someplace to get together, hang out with friends, and—for a little while—talk music, make music, and be music, any one of which is always better than its opposite. Crowds be damned; lifers have their privileges.
Critical bias: Location of gig was complicit in a vague plan to check out “The Clock” whenever the bands finished, though three-hour wait at one in the morning still seemed too daunting.
Overheard: (observing the venue’s collection of tattered vintage rock posters) “Oh, man, I loved when the Sex Pistols played here.”
Random notebook dump: The lineage of post-monoculture rock with re: Xgau’s column about Fiona Apple (& piano pop) also Mountain Goats (& musical theater), indie-metal (all cymbals), other deviations.