"What We Do is Secret" – 159 Manning BBQ 2012 (feat. The Harp Twins / Julie Doiron / The Cola Heads / Unfinished Business / Marnie Herald / Choir! Choir! Choir! / Little Orton Hoggit and his Ten Cent Wings / Shellshag / Buck 65 / Cousins)
159 Manning. Friday, June 15, 2012.
While this is fresh in my mind I want to get some quick notes down. I'm a nerd for not wanting to throw my full reviews out of sequence, so this'll be elaborated upon a bit by and by when I have proper time to go through all my recordings.
One of the more positively remarked-upon developments at NXNE over the past couple years has been the uptick in unofficial events, especially those taking place in the daytime. Whereas a few years ago, bands had to keep it on the downlow if they were playing outside of their sanctioned showcase timeslots, suddenly there's piles of BBQ's, parking lot shows and taco bar extravaganzas. Which is a fabulous thing — it doesn't substantially subtract from the bands' draw in their "official" appearances, it gives out-of-town bands more exposure and it really ramps up the festival's sense of eventfulness.
Timothy McCready, the "Emperor-Wizard of 159 Manning" is contributing to this, with his summer backyard extravaganza now in its fourth year. But while this all-day affair took advantage of NXNE to bring a couple out-of-towners out to play, it also felt pleasingly tangential to the hype-driven nature of a lot of North-by events. Which is to say, this wasn't particularly the place to go to if you wanted to be seen taking in the buzziest bands in town. In fact, unlike your typical NXNE day party, this didn't even trade on the name value of the musical acts at all, given that the lineup was kept secret until the event was underway. Instead, by tapping into a genuine local community spirit, this felt more like a village fair than a festival schmoozathon.
The event took advantage of several spaces — the backyard was the town square, with a stage set up for the performers, and the fence to the neighbours taken down to create an overflow area given over for the food zone, where two entire roast pigs were being served up. Inside, under the glare of shag-carpet clown art, the living room played host to a few sets, the basement got jammed out, and a photographer took over a room upstairs, offering portraits to anyone wandering in. There was a lot of stuff going on all day, so while I'm focusing on the music here, don't think that was the extent of the fun.
In the afternoon quietude, as the earlybirds trickled in Camille and Kennerly Kitt were setting up between two walls of books in the living room. Friends of Tim McCready who were brought in especially to open and close the day, their professional moniker The Harp Twins tells you exactly what you're getting. Playing rock classics and contemporary hits arranged for two harps, there were a few people on hand as they got started, but soon enough the living room was full with seated folks, attentive during the music and laughing and chatting with the twins between songs.
In fact, the informal vibe meant that an impromptu Q+A went hand in hand with covers of Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Led Zeppelin. That didn't subtract from the ornate beauty of the playing, which just seemed to follow from the way that the full-size acoustic harps gave both a feeling of stately beauty and an aura of old-time durable sophistication.
The peak was a singalong presentation of "Don't Stop Believin'", which turned into a crowdsourced experiment on how many lyrics people could remember on the spur of the moment. The twins were suitably impressed with how well the audience did, though I don't know if they realized how many choir-members — who will be further heard from later — they were playing to.
Back outside, the afternoon's heat was at its peak, the sun still too high to allow the house to cast the shadows that would provide precious shade later on. No surprise, then, that Julie Doiron was resigned at first to needing sunglasses to play her set. With her usual idiosyncratic self-reflection, though, she'd later ponder over whether she should be wearing shades, worrying about how they make it harder to establish eye contact. Worrying about attaining and keeping that kind of emotional closeness is at the core of Doiron's work, which might be why this backyard setting will fold in well with some of the best-remembered times I have seen her play.
Unvarnished, unedited human emotion is Doiron's stock-in-trade, and the same unfiltered rawness sometimes emerges as occasional lapses of over-sharing while chatting on stage. But amongst the usual songs about heartbreak and pain, it was a simple celebration of trees and grass that registered the most in this sun-drenched backyard: "by the lake, there's a rock, and it lets me lie on top / warmed by the sun and cooled by wind / and the water, it sings to me."1
Away from the sun, a smaller subset of the crowd carefully made their way inside and down to the basement. That rehearsal-y backdrop felt just right for a quick'n'loud set from The Cola Heads. There was a fun and nostalgic vibe at hand, as this was a reunion of sorts for this first-ever teenaged band2 for Julian Swift (who would later play with The Labour Of, Electricutie and Queen City Distributors). Original drummer Liam Jaeger (now of The Balconies) was joined by Swift's brother Nick Sewell (of Biblical/The Illuminati) on bass.3
"Sounds like: band practice" could be the operative element here, with the punkish bursts flying by like adolescent spasms, guitar roaring and vocals mostly an unintelligible mumble underneath. This'd be the loudest set of the day, but it was quite fun — if only someone had brought a rum-laced slurpee from the 7-11 up the street to go with the sweaty basement echoes and amiable brotherly ribbing it would have felt like a perfect slice of displaced teenaged fun.
That look back would be a good lead-in for the full-on youth rock of Unfinished Business, consisting of three girls between eleven and thirteen years of age who write all their own songs. Armed with one bad-assed guitar, Sita Gribben launched into the totally-awesome call for empathy "Try Not To Laugh" ("people falling off a pogo stick / try not to laugh"). Other songs were about rock stars, BFF's and haunted houses. Their set was a real joy to witness — they've already got the bravery and skills to rock out that put most of us to shame.
That short set left a few minutes to wander around — time to chat, have a beer, and grab some of the tasty, tasty pork. Wandered back inside and found a spot on the floor as Marnie Herald was getting ready to play. A comfy living room felt like the right sort of space for her folksy songs, delivered in a sterling voice. "It's a Pity Party" stuck with me, and had some nice understated keyboard touches from Catherine Stockhausen, who was sitting in. The songs they played together had an unfussy, informal feeling, as if the pair were working out their collaboration as we watched. The set ended with them tackling Stevie Nicks' "Wild Heart", which they admitted they'd first played together only the day before. It was a little ramshackle, but given how the whole thing felt more like hanging out than a performance that was just fine.
Back outside, the crowd had really swelled up. Some of that was from folks coming out after their workday had ended, but the bigger reason was that about half the crowd was about to perform. By the time they were assembled and ready to go, I couldn't even manage to get a headcount on the semicircle of people now taking up half the yard. Under the leadership of Nobu Aah and Daveed Goldman, Choir! Choir! Choir! has grown from a small meet-up to an informal force of hundreds. Obviously the concept taps into something pretty deep in people, where the joys of singing along is just one element of an inherently communal experience.
That works on audiences as well, and given their repertoire4, it's hard to not want to just sing along. That's helped by the unfussy arrangements, which don't try too hard to be fancy, leaving the songs and voices to showcase themselves. In this first set, "Mad World" worked very well and closer "La Isla Bonita" managed to end things with a big stomping, clap-along finale.
Sloan's Chris Murphy, who had been adjusting the drumkit on the stage while the choir had been singing, even got into the act, adding a kickdrum beat to the end of "La Isla Bonita". When I saw him on stage, my curiosity was piqued, and I figured that just maybe Little Orton Hoggit and his Ten Cent Wings might, in fact, be another name for someone I had seen before. In fact, it would turn out, Matt Murphy has been using this moniker for awhile while playing some good-time country music. Here, he stayed in character throughout the set, in shades and a cowboy hat, telling the story of his unfortunate career — where he had worked with all the greats, only for various misfortunes to intervene and consign him to perpetual obscurity. Murphy would act as his interlocutor throughout, prying details out and throwing in plenty of zingers in a cornpone routine that was sort of halfway between Hee Haw and Nashville.
The set was heavy on covers — although the original omni-key "Honky-Tonk Modulation" was trotted out as an example of Hogget's own ahead-of-his-time impulses. Most of it, like a jaunty run through "Whiskey River" was good to git down to.
Listen to a track from this set here.
When I first got wind of the full lineup for this show, I was totally stoked that Shellshag was on the bill. Not every set that I saw three years ago sticks with me, but the spirit that the Brooklyn duo play with really did. Eschewing the stage (and the PA), they set up right on the lawn and plugged into their "pyramid of sound", mics angled in a Y so that Shell (guitar) and Shag (drums) could stand and face each other while they played. Shell's long hair masked his face as he leaned in to sing, cranking out non-stop riffs on his clear plastic guitar. Shag smiled ear to ear, shaking her bell-adorned limbs for extra jangling percussion as she pointed a drumstick at the sky, looking elated to be playing rock'n'roll.
The net effect, I must confess, was completely intoxicating — maybe not even for the shaggy songs they were playing so much as the sense of elation it brought about. As they rumbled through a cacophonous cover of When In Rome's baldly romantic one-hit-wonder "The Promise" ("I'm just thinking of the right words to say / I know they don't sound the way I planned them to be / and if I had to walk the world, I'd make you fall for me / I promise you, I promise you I will"), grinning at each other throughout, I leaned to a friend and commented, "if I ever get married, this is what I want it to be like."
No doubt that the heat-haze and the backyard beers had something to do with it, but this was the most satisfying set that I'd seen in months. So much so that the big finale — when the anthemic "Fuck Society" ended with Shell carefully stacking all of the drums on top of each other in a precariously tottering tower — seemed like icing on the cake. A spectacularly joyful time.
Listen to a track from this set here.
After that, I was mildly fatigued as Buck 65 took the stage, but I was almost certainly in the right frame of mind. Richard Terfry might have been the day's biggest name, but he also acted if he was just here to hang out at a friend's house, talking about being neighbours with McCready and coming over to watch movies here. For this set he was in solo mode, rapping to backing tracks, but his little shuffles and between-song banter kept it feeling fresh.
Marnie Herald has worked with Terfry before, so it was no surprise when she joined him to serve as a hook-singer for "Gee Whiz" and stuck around for several more, including the Bronski Beat-sampling "Small Town Boy". It was a surprisingly comprehensive set, going past fifty minutes, and reaching back to some older material like "Wicked and Weird".
Listen to a track from this set here.
By now, night was falling, the pork was all gone and the backyard was pretty crowded as Choir! Choir! Choir! began assembling for their second set. In a rare mis-step for the day, I bailed on them a little too early — I wish I was standing there and paying full attention for their rendition of Big Star's "Thirteen", but by then I was already headed inside. After this long, I needed to rest up a bit, plus I was eager to stake out some turf in the living room.
Given that half of the crowd was actively singing in the Choir, I probably didn't need to have rushed in quite so soon, but I was eager to be close up to check out Cousins, whose recent The Palm at the End of the Mind album had gotten a fair bit of attention. Filled out with piano and other keyboard flourishes, it boasts a classic-rock informed sound that's intriguingly at odds with their live rep as a stripped-down duo,5 where guitarist/vocalist Aaron Mangle plays sitting down, his foot at a kickdrum to enhance Leigh Dotey's percussion.
Even with the minimalist lineup, the band seems to know a thing or two about rock'n'roll dramatics: "this is the last time we'll play this song," begins "Singing". Added to an ability to come up with songs that you can sing along with (despite never having heard them before), Mangle really seems to be on to something here. By the time the set closed out with the Velvets-y roll of "Die", I was sold on the band. Interestingly, all my worries about needing to stake out a space early on in the living room were unfounded — although it was filled up by the time the band began it wasn't crammed — and by the end they were playing to about a dozen bodies.
Listen to a track from this set here.
That made it all the more surprising when I headed outside to find the back yard fuller than ever. The Harp Twins, now with their more portable electric models, were playing to a buzzing party crowd. Some people were singing along, some just drinking and chatting and treating it as background noise. Sometimes when you're in a situation like this, you have to step back and consider how unusual and awesome it is — y'know, ho hum, just another evening in a backyard with a stage, musicians playing harps while a couple hundred people hang out.
With my night of "proper" NXNE-ing yet to start, I didn't stick around to the end, so I'm not sure how long the party went, but it was a helluva day. Everything was well-planed and well-executed — a real taste of the good life.
N.B. In addition to the individual songs I've posted from this day, I've also put together a compilation that features something from everyone who played, which you can grab here.
1 Meanwhile, Doiron talked about being nearly done with her new album, recorded by Rick White, meaning that there's some hope that the long wait since '09's I Can Wonder What You Did with Your Day is nearly done. As far as I know, this is separate from her work with her Cancer Bats-driven "power quartet", which is said to have done some live-off-the-floor recording at 6 Nassau.
3 It was apparently Sewell's insistence and technical support that got the band back together to record some of those Anthems for a Fourteen Year-Old Boy, the fruits of which are now available as a free download on their bandcamp.