(Click on any photo above to enlarge)
As you may tell from the things I’ve been reviewing as of late, my ears have been cocked westward to things coming from the Silver Lake/Echo Park music scene in Los Angeles for the last little while. For the most part, I hear many of these bands aren’t just great to listen to, but they also put on stellar live shows. One such group I’d heard this about was The Weather Underground; “Think James Brown fronting a punk band,” was what I heard specifically, which is one damn tall order. Thus, I blocked my calendar out when I saw they were playing DC last week.
Now, as I wrote, they were good and I definitely enjoyed their Rock n Roll Hotel show. But when I think of James Brown, I think of going to the bridge in a lavender cape, and a charisma and energy that bounces off the stage, into the crowd, and back. That wasn’t really The Weather Underground’s DC show. As I think I mentioned there were glimpses of it and the songs themselves were energetic, but you can’t feed off the energy of an audience if there really isn’t one (as was the case in the sparsely-attended DC show). So I thought hmm, why not catch the Mercury Lounge show in NYC that following Friday, maybe do a comparison and see? I mean, hell, it would be NYC, where folks go to shows even when it’s raining, on a Friday, on a bill of four bands with two relatively known (Band of Thieves and Parlour Mob), so there was bound to be more than 20 folks there. Plus, I knew that these boys, all proud Los Angelinos, would probably want to “represent” in this rival city to LA, and show the crowd that LA isn't all Motley Crue and "The Hills."
Thank you Lord for giving me good instincts because whatever it was, I was dead on, this was in no way the Bonaroo-weary-but-determined band I saw in DC. Energy radiated off that stage from the minute they tore into “Fight Songs of the Desajolos,” the opener. “Little Sparrows in Boyle Heights” followed, and by the time they hit the title track from their latest EP, Bird in the Hand, lead singer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist Harley Prechtel-Cortez was bouncing up on the balls of his feet, that baritone voice and soul-filled howl pouring forth flawlessly. His ability to maintain a long banshee yell on key in a single breath continually friggin’ astounds me.
It looked like the rest of the band had also gotten some rest because they too were right there with Prechtel-Cortez. During “Neal Cassady,” lead guitarist/keyboardist Soichi Bagley, who plays tambourine on this song, actually knocked it out of his own hand from the force at which he was hitting it, and drummer Diego Guerrero throttled the maraca with both hands, shaking it madly. Prechtel-Cortez sang their new song, “Letters,” with such passion and intensity, he looked almost surprised by it, as was the case during “Trainwreck.” This intensity carried through into a much more punk version of “Old Man Jude” than I'd seen in DC or heard on record even, and by its end, it was almost a punk/gospel sing-along. Well, for the band at least.
Sometimes you experience a show differently from the person next to you for whatever reason. Maybe the music struck me in a different way from the person next to me. Maybe the person next to him was having a bad day. Maybe the couple next to him was just biding time until Band of Thieves came on. But something made Prechtel-Cortez apparently feel that the audience, despite Weather Underground’s best efforts and a pretty scorching set, wasn't engaged because in addition to again dedicating "All Ye People" to his stepfather who passed away last year, he paused for a second and added, “Yeah, we’re almost done here folks.” Towards the end, “All Ye People” seemed to get through to the crowd though because I noticed that folks to my right stopped talking and folks to my left started clapping along.
Perhaps to capitalize on this breakthrough, the band did one more song, one I didn't know at all. Suddenly, Prechtel-Cortez came down into the crowd, still singing (this is something he typically does in the west coast shows I heard later). He then said, "A little bit of love and kindness is all you guys need," hugged the guy next to me, and returned to the stage after the chorus, apparently needing a short break....
...before the band went into a cover of The Beatles' "Dear Prudence" with gusto, complete with harmonica...
...and then they went back into whatever the previous song had been, to end the set. (Check out the picture stream at the top of this post where you can see the progression of things as they're shown in order. Alas, it totally escapes me now how Prechtel-Cortez wound up laying on the stage again playing guitar.)
So was it really “James Brown fronting a punk band”? Dunno if I'd go quite that far based on what I saw at this Mercury Lounge show last week, maybe that's an experience you only get by attending their hometown shows. But would I give them "Otis Redding fronting a punk band"? Yup, Otis, I'll give you, without question. Cause while Prechtel-Cortez may not don a lavender cape, he and his bandmates, like Redding, brilliantly synthesize the evangelical fervor of a church and the rambunctious vibes of rock 'n' roll. The Weather Underground is definitely a band with soul.