With summer’s end palpable in the drizzly chill, I walked around my lower Manhattan neighborhood torturing myself with typical first-day-of-September regrets: Why didn’t I do more cool shit this summer, why didn’t I carpe more diems, et cetera? I walked by the South Street Seaport, where a free outdoor concert had just started. As I passed it I thought, There’s another regret — why didn’t I take greater advantage of the scores of free outdoor concerts in New York this summer? So I decided right then and there that I would stop and at least give this one a shot. Maybe I’d see something great, maybe I wouldn’t. But either way I’d placate my regret-haunted noggin for a little while. (Also, I had no other plans that night because holy shit was I broke.)
First band was the Black Hollies. Could have sworn they were British, but their MySpace lists them as from Jersey City, so we’ll go with that. They sounded like Jet, only bluesier and more self-consciously classic-rock in a Yardbirds/Cream style. Their songs were fast, loud and riffy; the best one bit the riff from “Dig a Pony.” Verdict: For an opening act, the Black Hollies did just fine as a hit of standard loud/fast/British-sounding rock. (They wound up being upstaged, however, by Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” which played on the Seaport’s P.A. system after the Hollies’ set. What a weird, great song. So take that fact for whatever it’s worth.)
Uncle John and Whitelock proved just weird enough to be interesting, thanks mostly to lead singer Jacob Lovatt, a mesmerizing visual riot. He looked a bit like Billy Zoom (skinny as hell, big blond pompadour), but whereas Zoom’s feet might as well be nailed to the floor during an X show, Lovatt flailed around onstage, high-stepping left and right and capping the performance by intentionally tangling himself up in his microphone cord and falling on his ass. Strange shit spilled out of his mouth, too, both between songs (“This is the tallest audience we’ve ever had,” he said, referring to the Manhattan skyline) and during (one song contained the presumably not-to-be-taken-at-face-value line “They only love you ’cause you’re black”; another went “We are living in a rape fantasy”). Sonically, they’re most easily categorized as punk — plenty of boilerplate power chords, barely there melodies and slogan-y lyrics bellowed in Lovatt’s ragged monotone snarl — but the quintet proved surprisingly versatile, flaunting bluegrass finger-picking and dirty-blues slide riffs. Good stuff, although I can’t claim I was hanging on every note: Uncle John and Whitelock flat-out lost me at times. The sparser the instrumentation, it seemed, the less interesting the songs were. But the good ones were real good, Lovatt is a born frontman, and I came away from the performance hoping the band’s album finds a U.S. distributor right quick.
Co-headliners Dirty on Purpose were less thrilling. A four-piece noise-pop band from Brooklyn, Dirty on Purpose’s most striking musical feature is the way the members layer their thin-as-hell Neil Young vocals (everyone but the bassist sings) overtop the mangled speed-distortion they somehow raged out of their cheap-looking guitars. Their tunes were grounded in normal verse-chorus-verse — I said noise-pop, not just-plain noise; you won’t be seeing these guys at the No Fun Fest. But, given their vocal limitations and lack of memorable riffs, they didn’t have the chops to make those standard songforms move in an interesting way. Dirty on Purpose seem like an okay little band, but I’m not rushing out to buy their album. (Another reason I’m not going to buy their album is I’m broke; see above.)
I loved the Spinto Band, from Wilmington, Delaware, and ever since the show I’ve been attempting to explain why, only I haven’t been able to; it’s a tough sound to describe. Here’s my best shot: Think Beach Boys vocal harmonies plus disco beats plus the playfulness and indie-rock je ne sais quoi of Pavement plus three guitarists who twitch like malfunctioning robots onstage plus a lead singer who does mini-windmills (rotating at the elbow not shoulder; it’s a neat effect) plus corny-in-a-good-way synth hooks. And kazoos. (They even had a kazoo holder – y’know like a harmonica holder, only it was for a kazoo.) I couldn’t make out too many of the lyrics, but I’m sure they’re good and funny; their stage banter was pretty amusing, after all (example: “I saw the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time today. It lived up to the postcards”). The Spinto Band were so much fun I didn’t even wince when they wrapped up their set with a cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” a trite choice if you ask me, but I didn’t really mind because I figured if they want to play crappy mall-pop from the ’80s it’s their prerogative. By that point, they had earned the right.
Spinto Band Web site: http://www.spintoband.com/
Dirty on Purpose Web site: http://www.dirtyonpurpose.com/
Uncle John and Whitelock Web site: http://www.myspace.com/unclejohnandwhitelock
The Black Hollies Web site: http://www.myspace.com/theblackhollies