Running up and down the alley

Wednesday was a Mission Creek evening for me like a meal at a tapas bar. I caught six different bands at three venues, mostly traversing the alley between Gabe’s and Yacht Club to try and sample the most interesting music on offer. Not to take away from the bands I didn’t see–Slut River has been more transcendentally trashy every time I’ve caught their performances-as-insurrection–but a guy can only be one place at a time. Thus, my peregrinations described in chronological order.

Mirror Coat (Yacht Club) 9:00 p.m.

I started the evening there with Mirror Coat, who make wonderfully detailed psychedelic pop. Kembrew McLeod said they reminded him of Dream Syndicate. I connected their sound to the late-’80s pop wonderfulness of San Francisco bands like the Mommyheads & the Sneetches. No matter, they have three excellent male vocalists who took turns on lead and harmony, and two guitarists creating a shimmering, reverb-drenched home for their voices.

Iris Dement (Englert) 9:30 p.m.

To a nearly full Englert, Iris Dement delivered a set of relaxed, perfectly pitched country music. As I tweeted, she may have the perfect country voice–like Dolly Parton channeling Billy Holiday. A great country voice is one perfectly controlled in service of the song, and yet retains some of the untutored, plain sound of people singing hymns in a backwoods church.

I like a lot of the songs on her new album which were presented–almost curated–by her band of veteran country/folk musicians. I couldn’t stay for her whole set, but was there when her friend and producer Bo Ramsey joined her. I first saw Bo play when we were both in our 20s, which was a long-ass time ago. It’s been gratifying seeing him turn into a sort of elder statesman of roots music. His additions to Dement’s songs were understated, sparse and almost perfect; sometimes going a whole verse only adding a couple of notes.

Gluestick/Paducah (Gabe’s) 10:00 p.m.

Gluestick opened the punk rock night at Gabe’s by announcing they were now called Paducah (after the lead singer’s hometown). They tore into a set of songs that had morphed away from pure punk, into a bass-driven, metal-tinged sort of post-something. The front-man’s was the show. The way he lurched around on stage, each line delivered was like an incidental sideswipe of the microphone. There was plenty of shouting, screaming and bawling, but it held together as an expression of…something? Maybe that you can live in Iowa and still be punk, even if you’re polite to the checkout women at Hy Vee.

The Multiple Cat + Detective (Yacht Club) 10:40 p.m.

My ongoing discussion with different people last night about the Yacht club had a couple of talking points. 1. Without taking anything away from other venues, it’s my favorite room in town. It’s like a house-show basement without mold and dirty laundry, it’s homey and unpretentious, and the sound is top notch, with a touch of room reverb kept in check by the low ceiling of acoustic tiles. 2. Other people aren’t thrilled with the brick pillars making for chancy sight lines, preferring a more traditional box & stage setup.

But it remains an Iowa City institution, an idiosyncratic, homey spot that is perfect for band and audience rapport.

The Multiple Cat have been a Quad-City mainstay for a long time, and the touch of grey in the hair and wedding rings indicate they’re not contending to become rock stars. They instead channel their energy into good song writing, delivered with vitality and humor. Bands come and go and it’s not often you get to hear what happens when one sticks together for a long time. The Multiple Cat has some of that telepathic ensemble rapport that comes from playing together for so long.

Detective is a guitar/bass/drum trio comprising James Greer (ex-Guided By Voices), Guylaine Vivarat (ex-Useless Keys) and Chris Dunn. Having been in a prominent band is a double-edged sword–it open certain doors but saddles one with expectations one might not be able to fulfill. I managed to almost completely miss out on GBV, so I encountered these guys with no preconceptions, and they absolutely ruled. They write songs with obscure titles (“Alpha Waves in a Gelatinous Conductor” is “about Sex” Greer informed us) and carefully constructed literate lyrics. That’s great, but Detective also has the sort of offhanded sloppy-but-not-sloppy performance style that feels fun and liberating.

James Greer is a virtuoso of the mediocre guitar. By which I mean there’s nothing virtuoso-esque in his playing, and his playing is littered with ‘wrong’ notes, scrapes, and squeals. Yet, it has that zen koan quality of being messy and inexact in precisely the right way.

White Lung (Gabe’s) 12:30 a.m.

I have been listening to punk rock for nearly 40 years, and at this point it’s like a hair brush or a snow shovel: Function dictates form. It has been retooled and refined to the point where innovation is beyond difficult. To actually innovate in punk would necessarily be to become something no longer punk.

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That being said I expected much less of White Lung than I got. Kenneth William (guitar) Grady Mackintosh (bass) and Anne-Marie Vassiliou (drums), produced a slashing, punishing din marked by both rhythmic precision and recklessness–an exciting if contradictory combo.

But make no mistake, singer Mish Way is a star. She half-shouts, half-sings; each line she spits is full of restless ADD personality. In a genre not known for subtlety, she shades her performance with spiky turns of changeable emotion. Angry, Sarcastic, Goofy, and Sweet all compete for face time. She lurches and pogos, singing through a curtain of hair she parts with an angry twitch to drive home a point. She commands attention without apparent artifice, but any performance this riveting is a refined construction tuned to make immediate connection to the audience.

There’s an old Hollywood joke that sincerity is the most important thing to a performer; if you can fake that you’ve got it made. White Lung like any professional band, is an artificial, rehearsed construct, but when on stage, whatever thought and planning that went into “White Lung” goes away when they perform. They’re pure punk aggression, directly wired into the roiling, moshing crowd in front of them. Looking at the audience the most remarkable thing was how many people were smiling. This was joy, this was what freedom feels like.

Limping home, worse for wear

In a night with impressive noises made by Detective and White Lung, my interlude with Iris felt like something else entirely, but what they have in common is a steadfast commitment to making the music that feels authentic to them.

They bring deep talents to the job. What more can you ask for?