Saturday, June 21, 2008

Show Review: The Weather Underground @ Rock n Roll Hotel, Washington, DC (6-16-08)

(Click on any photo to enlarge)

I assume a rock show on a rainy Monday night is tough to get a huge crowd at most places, but in Washington, DC, it's REALLY hard. If you're a smaller band from another coast who is also playing second on a bill of three on a rainy Monday in DC, you might very well be playing to a handful of folks and the venue staff for your set.

This is, unfortunately, what happened for The Weather Underground's show last Monday at the Rock and Roll Hotel. They wound up playing for around 20 people plus the bartender and the sound guy in total; but DC, I'm here to tell you, you should have showed up because you missed one hell of a rock show.

Out of the super hot Echo Park/Silver Lake music scene in Los Angeles, The Weather Underground plays rock music that is tinged with the influences of folk, soul, punk, gospel, and Latin, the latter making sense as lead singer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist Harley Prechtel-Cortez is very tied to his Guatemalan heritage (more on that later). But I'm not talking Gipsy Kings imitators here, I'm talking “the Strokes meet a mariachi band meet Otis Redding,” or “The Cribs meet Hank Williams meet Bono, with some Sandinista-era Clash" thrown in for good measure. The neat thing about listening to this band is that each musician's piece is really interesting and creative separately, so that when they pull it all together it becomes one amazing sound.

Diego Guerrero's drumming is truly a thing of beauty. It's a crisp and clean but driving force, and in at least one song, he uses a maraca and a tambourine in place of drum sticks, making for a really neat and different sound. And Guerrero doesn't just tap the drums to keep time and the beat, he beats the bejesus out of them in a way that would make Topper Headon proud (how they don't have holes in them is beyond me). Lead guitarist/keyboardist Shoichi Bagley only learned how to play a few short years ago when his cousin, Prechtel-Cortez, was in dire need of a fill-in guitarist for a radio show he was doing. But when you hear Bagley, you'd think he's been playing forever; always the true sign of a natural talent. Bagley’s slide guitar playing is effortless and truly adds another dimension to the songs. Bassist Ryan Kirkpatrick disproves the notion held by some I know that a bassist is just there for filler, and something like the bass line from Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" is the only thing a bassist aspires to play. Kirkpatrick's sound is full of movement and inventive, and almost seems to follow the lilt of Prechtel-Cortez's voice at times. Sid Vicious he is not.

Prechtel-Cortez has one of the better rock singer yells I've heard in some time and he sings like his life depends on it. With a baritone voice similar to Eddie Vedder's and a Robert Plant Led Zeppelin-era wail, the man can sing. Prechtel-Cortez typically appears onstage sans shoes ("It's a comfort thing, like you would be when you're at home," he told me later), and sings with his eyes closed most of the time, almost like he's having a private moment with the muse that's inspiring him….until, that is, he lets out a lyric in a melodious yell, like a preacher in an evangelical church trying to summon the heavens.

Rock and Roll Hotel’s space may have been small but The Weather Underground’s sound was HUGE. They started the set with two songs from their newest EP (entitled Bird in the Hand), “Little Sparrows in Boyle Heights” and the title track, the latter of which Prechtel-Cortez played so hard on that he literally lost the hat he was wearing. "Neal Cassady," dedicated to Bo Diddley, followed suit, followed by “When I Was a Soldier,” and then an INCREDIBLE new song, “Letters.” Prechtel-Cortez plays keyboards on this, giving Bagley and Kirkpatrick center stage, with Guerrero doing that cool substitution I mentioned earlier, using a maraca and a tambourine for drum sticks. From this swirling din, came “Something’s Gotta Give,” this one dedicated to Otis Redding, and I see why--it screams soul but backed with a tribal beat. I recall thinking “I hope to hell he’s using a pick” as I watched Bagley play this because it seemed he was trying to literally tear the notes from his guitar. Guerrero’s drumming was so intense, I saw his kit moving around.

Then they got to “Trainwreck,” this fabulous standout song about addiction on the the new EP. Even if they’d just spent the last three days in the hot sun playing the Bonaroo Festival and “lost their minds there,” as Prechtel-Cortez commented earlier in the night, even though they looked exhausted and probably felt more so, I’m pretty sure folks 11 streets down at the Capitol could feel Guerrero’s drumming, and were most likely asking each other where that catchy keyboard/guitar sound was coming from. But I’m damn sure they all heard the melodious banshee yell of “I’m coming hoooommmmeee” by Prechtel-Cortez. You think I’m exaggerating here, and maybe I am...Ok, maybe it was only five streets down not 11, but I’m dead serious about all the rest of it. The band was like a group of demon children on holiday, playing fast and furious, to the point where I saw Bagley visibly go “whew!” when the song was finished.

“Old Man Jude” followed and is a nice “musical fake out” (it starts off all slow and bluesy, complete with Prechtel-Cortez playing harmonica and doing a little ad-lib singing of “Anyway, the Lakers are a whole lot better than the Celtics, and anyway, it’s just a game).” But then the song jumps to 60 miles an hour with four quick taps of Guerrero’s drum sticks. This calm-to-raucous dichotomy seems to happen in many of The Weather Underground’s songs, and that’s probably why I enjoyed them so much. To me, the ability to switch tempos on a dime like that has always been indicative of a band that a) is incredibly tight and b) contains incredibly competent musicians. As The Weather Underground *seemingly* did this switch flawlessly over and over in various songs throughout the evening, I’d say both of these apply.

Almost to give band and audience some time to breathe from this energetic onslaught, they then did a slow gospel number called “All Ye People,” which brought “Let It Loose,” off The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” to mind. Prechtel-Cortez dedicated “All Ye People” to his step-father who passed away last year (“He always wanted to be a preacher so I dedicate this one to him,” he told the audience). It’s a gorgeous and lush song about the solitary nature of dying, and how one must live in the now. “All Ye People” is definitely a song that weeps.

The band ended with “Fight Songs of the Desajolos,” another song off the new EP, and was inspired by the month Bagley and Prechtel-Cortez spent in Guatemala last year. I read somewhere that one reviewer heard this track and wondered if he’d received the wrong record. It’s got an upbeat “mariachi band at a carnival” sound, paired with serious lyrics (about displaced field workers), and is sung entirely in Spanish. Admittedly, on record, this song didn’t do much for me, but live, live, I was sold. Is it a typical song for a rock band to play? Nope. But than again, it appears that The Weather Underground isn’t really your *typical* rock band, so it all makes sense.

In the end Washington, DC, you missed a rousing show last Monday from a top-notch live band who rocked our 39 socks off (would have been 40 but I wasn't wearing socks with heels). The Weather Underground will be back, and when they are, even if it’s raining, be sure you go. I guarantee you won’t be sorry.

Download: All Ye People-The Weather Underground (MP3)

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