At the risk of sounding fusty and old, I've mostly given up on finding a brand-new, never-heard-of-these-guys-before band to fall in love with when I go to a show. Devotion at first sight used to happen all the time, back when I was young and the world was freshly minted and every new band was a revelation (in one direction or another—I didn't necessarily like them all, but they were all new). Back in those days, "going to a show" didn't mean we knew anything about who'd be playing. Sometimes it meant we didn't even know who was playing.
But as we got older and the world dulled into increasingly familiar shapes and colors, that happened less and less often. Now I pretty much only go to shows where people I know—or bands that have been heavily recommended to me—are playing. So if I seem overeffusive in my love for Jail Weddings, indulge me: They have given me the powerful adolescent gift of falling in love all over again.
It began on a drippy autumn night at the Comet a few months ago. I'd come to see my brother's band, local rock 'n' roll lotharios Broken Nobles, and showed up before their set time. A band from Los Angeles called Jail Weddings were on deck. Jail Weddings was an odd name, and the crowd at the Comet was oddly dressier than usual. There were the usual rockers and hair farmers, but there were also women wearing fingerless lace gloves, deep scarlet lipstick, and pearly necklaces. Neat!
Then the ten of them took the stage, their wardrobe suspended somewhere between shabby and sharp—ladies in high heels and gloves with tattoos, dudes in hats and ties and battered jeans and boots. They looked like punk-soul, a little retro-druggie, a little gutter-glam. They were carrying lots of instruments: guitars, a violin, a big tenor saxophone, tambourines. And bottles. Lots and lots of bottles.
This looked promising.
In a subsequent e-mail correspondence, band mastermind Gabriel Hart wrote: "One guy said, 'Jail Weddings is like tuning in to a soap opera halfway through the season and trying to piece it all together.'"
That's not only an accurate description of how Jail Weddings feel when they fill a room—you can smell the drama—it's also true. The band members fight, drink, pine after one another, and take revenge on each other. Hart said he'd written one song, "I Am Fucking Crazy," to discipline certain members: "I wrote this song actually as a punishment for the girls to sing. [Name redacted] and [name redacted] did NOT get along, and it got ugly on a regular basis. I figured the best way to do this was [to force them] to 'out' themselves to the world what nasty girls they were being, completely expose them. Strangely enough, they started getting along."
Sounds a little kinky, doesn't it?
A quick tour around Hart's song titles (almost all of them autobiographical) makes him sound like a magnet for trouble: "Cheat On Your New Lover with Me," "(Do You Think We're Gonna End Up On) Skid Row?," "I'm My Own Doctor," and the marvelously titled "What Did You Do with My Gun?" That song concerns a girlfriend who tried to hide the gun Hart and a fellow musician named Jean-Paul Garnier (now living in Seattle and playing with the infamous Sioux City Pete in the band Stabbings) bought when they lived in a shitty part of Los Angeles: "Don't you dare tell me/it just disappeared/where all our spare socks go/I just want to know-ho/what did you do/with my gun?... If you'd be so kind as to disregard/my kaleidoscope of vice/it just would be so nice/if I knew/what you did with my gun." (If the slashes dividing the lyrics are confusing, it's because Hart sings with a jazz vocalist's disregard for standard rhythm—he routinely stretches four syllables to fill one bar and packs 14 syllables into the next.)
Jail Weddings songs sound the way the band looks: huge, soulful, and swaggering, taut and unpredictable as a cat. As soon as they hit their first chords on that drippy night in the Comet, the crowd started dancing in a frenzy they didn't seem capable of during the set break. Hart danced and swung his arms around to the horn breaks and 1960s girl-group harmonies with the focused fury of a tent-revival preacher: He's small and dense with short dark hair and brown eyes that aren't exactly malevolent, but you can see the spark of violence behind them. You can see he's not kidding.
In their way, Jail Weddings are an American answer to the Pogues—not that the two bands sound anything alike. ("That analogy is a good angle," Hart said when I proposed it. "Just as long as you don't think people will be quick to assume we're like Flogging Molly or something.") But they seem to have followed similar arcs: musicians reared in garage-punk cradles who then fell in love with their respective autochthonous musics—for the Pogues, Irish folk; for Jail Weddings, soul and blues and a little Mexicana—and needed big bands to realize their sounds.
Oh, and bottles. Lots and lots of bottles.