Then-current album: Ready to Fly
Opening act: Yo La Tengo
Back of ticket ad: ah, Fox Photo, will you never cease.
This scan is one of a few that aren’t quite at right angles, but nothing too crazy.
Meantime the first of various New Zealand shows to follow. Not in NZ itself, but I’ve been to a few of those as well.
I think it’s the case for a lot of people — a LOT of people, especially in the States — with my age and my interests that felt that New Zealand was some sort of strange wonderful place where everyone was in a band and on Flying Nun Records, or maybe Xpressway. It was like a lower-key Anglophilia of the sixties, the one that assumed that the Beatles all lived in a house together or the like. The self-evident ridiculousness of the stereotype doesn’t prevent it from taking hold — and the thing was, there just really WAS a lot of fantastically wonderful music coming from the country, some of which got immediate acclaim, while other songs and bands and acts would be building up a body of work that in future years made people go “What the…you mean this was happening as well?”
Whatever the limitations of the college-radio mindset, if it hadn’t been for it plus things like the Trouser Press Record Guide and the occasional appreciative article here and there in other publications (for many friends it was Spin‘s coverage that did the trick, though the first Verlaines review I ever read was for Bird-Dog in Rolling Stone) I would have started listening to a variety of things I still love much later, or maybe not at all, depending. I was hardly an expert at this point beyond knowing some band names, some label names — I did have a little more knowledge of the country than some Americans as well since a friend was from the Wellington area (hi there, Jody W!) and we talked music at points among other things, but even so it was a distanced knowledge; my first and so far only visit to the country was a full decade off.
So much as prologue — for whatever combination of reasons a number of NZ acts were starting to get at least a smidgen of major label attention, with two notable ones ending up on Slash/Warner Bros, the Chills and the Verlaines. As mentioned I had known of them since Bird-Dog‘s release but I only actually heard that album a year or two later, and from the first song, “Makes No Difference,” I figured, “Oh right, this bunch is already one of my favorite bands around.” Perhaps an exaggeration but not far off — Graeme Downes, Verlaines main man, often had his advanced graduate work on Mahler mentioned in press coverage and the like, and no question that his sense of melody and arrangements, as his best, but when it comes to lyrics Downes is no less of a slouch. As I’ve muttered before time and again, lyrics are generally always secondary to me so when I notice them and latch onto them, that’s because I think they’re REALLY good. Actually worth paying attention to.
And so with Downes, so by the time of Ready to Fly‘s release I was a committed fan and found myself rewarded — I don’t think I have a favorite album by them per se but it’s up at the top anyway, a collection of songs at once tender and sweeping and wry and reflective and more, less roughly energized than the earliest days but perhaps all the more beautiful in exchange, something that was a ‘big major label debut’ that didn’t actually sound like the kind of excessive mess that usually implied. So when I heard they were touring, well, the rest was easy.
Funny thing was that I met Downes at the Whisky almost immediately, except I didn’t recognize him. I really didn’t have a full sense of what he currently looked like anyway — there were the occasional photos in the albums of course but it wasn’t like his image was plastered everywhere I looked, so when I bought the T-shirt from the guy sitting patiently at the merch table it wasn’t until he was on stage later that the light went off in my head. I’ve gotten a bit better at that over the years, I think.
Beyond that this is another show where I don’t remember the lead up to it as much, one show of a huge clutch in April, and where I don’t remember who I was with and so forth. It all just kinda happened, and the venue itself, compared to other shows I’d been at, wasn’t anywhere near as packed as it could be, perhaps not a surprise. There was, however, some extra reason for attention that evening due to a band I’d recently seen a lot more of in terms of reviews and general talk: Yo La Tengo. In fact I distinctly remember the LA Weekly‘s preview of show talking about them and only briefly mentioning the actual headliners, which kinda pissed me off a little in that fannish way.
So perhaps I was a little ill-disposed to them on that count, I’ll admit. But in watching Yo La Tengo’s set I remember being neither annoyed nor thrilled, more…shrugging. A touch. This was the first of two times I would see the band that year and I’ll get to the second in due course, but for a band that went on soon after that to a position of general critical love it’s held ever since I admit I wasn’t all that taken — it was pleasant, but not deathless. In retrospect I also think that this is the first time I was consciously aware of being a little irritated at what later became (in my head, at least) a pattern of celebrated-in-the-discourse acts that mostly left me very, very flat, less somehow amazingly inventive and the-new-whatever than a lot of what I was hearing and, much more often, reading about said acts. But that’s another story in the end, really, and there was one song, quiet and constructed around a gentle guitar loop that Ira Kaplan created, that I enjoyed without reservation. Maybe if they were all like that I would be thinking differently about ’em still.
When the Verlaines did take the stage and I figured out who the T-shirt seller was, I happily pepped up a bit, though it’s a show that like so many consists mainly of flashes in the memory. It was a Ready to Fly-heavy set by default which made me a happy clam and all, and I’m pretty sure the title track is one of the performances that sticks in the brain, it being such a wonderful sounding song, especially on the wounded but right chorus. It was definitely a thin crowd, though — I remember being up front if not actually leaning on the stage, though I remember at least one guy who was even more of a hyperfan than I was right in front of Downes, where I stood off to the side.
I remember said fan being really thrilled at the start of one song in particular, partially because I was thrilled too — “Slow Sad Love Song,” appearing on Bird-Dog but originally written and performed years earlier. It’s a classic slow burn anthem, starting off calm and building to a classically frenzied climax, and remains a favorite. The fan was really into it, I probably wasn’t any less so and heaven knows if Downes just thought the two of us were typical crazy fans. Wouldn’t blame him if so.
I interviewed Downes a year later on the phone for the release of the next album but have otherwise never caught them or him since. Perhaps again, one day.