Wed Aug 8, Tractor Tavern.
Pere Ubu's David Thomas once responded to the query, "What do you think of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music?" by saying something to the effect of "I don't get instrumental music. I can't relate to something that doesn't have a singer."
I agree with Thomas. Yet here I am, watching an instrumental surf band called the Mercury Four--and I really don't like surf music. Sure, there's the Rivingtons (you know, "Surfin' Bird" and "Papa-Oo-Mow-Mow"), but by the time the Trashmen ripped them off, watered them down, and opened for the Beach Boys, history has lost me. The tide is high, and I'm gone.
I think surf music in the year 2001 is merely a nostalgic novelty. But I do want to be fair, and I have to say that the Mercury Four are a tight band with accomplished musicians.
The band's songs drift smoothly through spy-movie soundtracks, Dick Dale reverb-runs, and the occasional beefy chord progression, which provides a punk rock foundation, shaking up the otherwise giddily referential material.
"Werewolves on Wheels," Mercury Four's second song, showcases their obvious love of treble. While Chip Doring's guitar-playing is stellar throughout the set, at times I genuinely wish either he or the sound man would feed a bit more bass into the mix, to anchor the overall tone of the performance. Bassist Natalie Parks (who stands very still and is super fucking cool to watch) is nimble and solid, definitely doing her part. But with Jim Sadler's keyboard and Doring's Hawaii Five-O-style guitar tidal-waving, Parks winds up consistently in the undertow. Drummer Marshall Scott Warner is minimal and effective throughout, replete with "Wipeout" rolls and great fills.
For the non-archival among us, there are dancers: The band calls these two women up twice during the set, each time to go-go dance, reminiscent of Goldie Hawn in Laugh-In, replete with full '60s drag and deadpan facial expressions. Nothing new, right? But it definitely adds a dynamic to the show.
After an effective Ventures cover, the players begin a moodier, more atmospheric piece, and I'm starting to get it. As a spy-themed guitar line is played, the girl at stage left mock-shoots into the crowd and blows on her finger, as if to cool it. The keyboard is plinking and the drums are solid and even. The song drifts into a jazzier section, and then begins to jump in and out of parts, going loungy, then spy, breaking down, and then building--but it's always a gentle ebb and flow, like easy listening for the rockabilly kids. (There are several in the audience, all of whom seem to be enjoying themselves calmly).
So I'm trying my best to be appreciative, and it's kind of working out. Some sections in the set are dull. The songs seem self-consciously surf, and perhaps a bit too gentle, often running into one another as though all are one and the same.
At other times, however, there's a punk rock infusion (and even one New-Wavey moment that makes me think of the B-52's and long for Kate Pierson's voice). On one song, Sadler plays flute sounds with his keyboard that are silly and great. He also plays samples, one of which trumpets in the final song. It's a male voice: "If you are viewing this film, then we are under extraterrestrial attacks."
It's little moments like these that keep the landlocked California-haters engaged.