Sunday, October 29, 2006

What Costume(s) Shall The Poor Girl(s) Wear?

Of all the places in Milwaukee I would go to see a Velvet Underground tribute band, I have to admit that the Up and Under wasn't exactly the first place that popped into my head. C'mon, its a stright up bar blues joint, nevertheless, its a good place to see a band.

Full disclosure: I pretty much know everybody in this band. As a matter of fact, I pretty much knew everybody (some only as new acquaintances) in the freaking bar that night.
But I'm still learning to shoot bands with digital, so it was a good band to work with, because they presented me with all the classic challenges: they move around a lot, the lighting is pathetic, but flash looks terrible.

Mark Shurilla, dressed as Andy Warhol (who never actually played with the Velvets, he just gave 'em a place to play, "produced" their records, hoisted Nico upon them and allowed them to drop his name to get noticed) has been leading this little project for just under a year now. Fortunately, he's decided to retool the band a bit. They used to have a sax player. WTF! I don't seem to remember John Cale doubling on sax, or even Doug Yule for that matter. And with the sax, you could probably get away with it and do Lou's non-Velvet hit, "Walk on the Wild Side" but they didn't even do that. No, the sax took up room on the stage. Problem No 2: Dan Mullen on bass. Now, Dan Mullen is a fine bass player. In fact, he plays bass in MY band. But he's totally wasted on bass in a VU band. You need somebody with the guitar chops of Dan Mullen to go way out into exploding plastic inevitable zone, and despite all Shurilla's charm and stage presence, he's not the man to do it. Mullen is.

So last Friday was the night to see the new and improved lineup, and new and improved it is. Mr Sax is gone, and replaced with Chris Loss on keyboards. I haven't seen Loss onstage with a set of keys since, oh, the old Trance and Dance band days, and that alone brings the right mindset for this project. Second, Shurilla brought in Bob Jorin on the bass, so that Dan "No, Mark, that's formerly of Plasticland" Mullen could take his rightful place as lead guitarist. Jorin, along with Andy Pagel are holding down the rhythm section so well that Shurilla and Marla (I need to get her last name) as "Nico" can front the band and blast off. You could tell Jorin and Loss were the "new guys" by their stage presence and melodic restraint, but I don't think it will take them long to get comfortable making us uncomfortable with wacked out sounds. I'll re-visit this in a few months.



Halloween weekend was the correct weekend to open this up to the public. A couple of women dressed to the part took to the dance floor, all S&M'ed up for a recreation of Venus in Furs. Any other weekend they would have been written of as scary S&M Dominatrices; this weekend they fit right in. (There were people in the bar who clearly had no clue what the VU was all about.)

The thing is, Mark Shurilla doesn't need to put on the Andy Warhol Wig. Marla on the other hand, looks smashing as Nico! But she can sing in tune, and that takes a few Nico-notches down. (Note to Mark S -- get her a monitor next time. It was obvious -- and she confirmed to me afterwards I was right -- she couldn't hear herself the whole first set, and that's not good.) But to the point: the thing about a VU Tribute band is that we know we're not getting Lou and John and Moe and Nico. Lou Reed's songbook is one of the few where anybody could be playing it, with any style, and still evoke the same feeling you get. They went into Venus in Furs and in a very pavlovian response, I instantly got strung out. I haven't been that strung out in YEARS. But that song does it to me: I'm in the old Odd Rock Cafe, its a Saturday night after a Friday all-nighter of drinking and debauchery, but for some reason I hopped the No15 bus and dragged my strung out keyster to the club to be one of eleven people to see some unnamed band. Then they pipe into "What Goes On" and I'm instantly transported to the Falcon Bowl, the first night I saw the "Trance and Dance Band" in the early 90s. And then they do "Beginning to see the Light" and its 1983, I'm DJing at my college radio station, and I'm hoping to get tickets to the Talking Heads show at the student auditorium. Yes, going to see any band that plays VU all night is ripe for flashbacks. Good ones, at that. But especially with these guys: since I happen to know personally that these songs mean just as much to them as they do to the fans. I think that's probably the case with all tribute bands, but this one especially. The VU, as Eno famously reminded us, are half the reason many of us first picked up guitars. The first song I ever learned to play on guitar was "What Goes On." I was talking to a bass-playing friend in the crowd, and we both agreed that the Lou Reed songbook is a must-learn for anybody with rock and roll aspirations. What genius to write such a slew of three-chord bits that are so different from other stuff out there. First time in a long time I stayed to the bitter end for a band, despite the fact that I knew my three year old would rack me out of bed five hours later. That's how worth it it was.

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