Larry Cooper didn’t seem too put out at being shoved off to the far reaches of downtown, nor at the fairly sparse crowd in attendance at his showcase at The Real Sammie's. As he opened his semi-eponymous band L.L. Cooper's set with rock-inflected country barnstormer “Harvey Keitel," Cooper’s strong vocals and clean sense of melody hit home, reminding the mostly older crowd of how great this kind of music can sound live in a small space.
Cooper the brought things back down a bit with mid-tempo, downtrodden boozer “Tailspin”; guitarist Wil Woodward added a few tasteful flourishes of feedback and harmonics before the band jarred the song to a close with a truck-driver gear-change. About halfway through the set, Cooper invited fellow HPMA nominee Lee Alexander onstage for a little bit of mouth-harp, though his contribution was unfortunately muddled in the mix.
Throughout his set, though, Cooper provided a reminder of what country-rock used to be back when Gram Parsons was at the helm, long before it had its own magazine. Cooper’s not playing to a scene, or keeping up an image - he’s just doing his thing, and damn, does he do it well.
Miss Leslie and Her Juke Jointers
Franz Ferdinand's post-punk nouveau started thumping through Venue's PA, and the fog had not yet lifted from D.R.U.M.’s set as Miss Leslie and Her Juke Jointers began setting up. The honky-tonk quartet must have felt slightly out of place amid the mood lighting, intimate lounge seating and clubland cool, not to mention the stage raised ten feet in the air and 20 feet of empty dance floor between band and audience.
Soon enough, though, Miss Leslie brought out her fiddle, and as soon as she laid bow to strings, a clean, sharp sound cut through the fog like a decidedly un-trendy breath of fresh air extinguishing Franz Ferdinand's white-belted pseudo-punk. The good-sized audience was clearly appreciative, and several couples started two-stepping as the band leaned into its first number.
In fine form, the quartet ran through an outstanding set of "Drinkin’, Cheatin’, and Fightin’" songs. Standout “Honky-Tonk Hangover” gave Miss Leslie the opportunity to show off her vocal flexibility, complete with yodelly bits and plenty of guttural punch - reminiscent of Reba before she was her own sitcom’s punchline.
The three blokes comprising Scattered Pages arrived sans fancy hats, but fortunately there were a few sympathetically haberdashed audience members to pick up the slack. The folksy trio did its best to knock those hats off right from the start, churning things up with scattershot, doubletime drumming and gamboling guitars that conjured up Buddy Holly, bluegrass, and state fairs.
Singer Brandon Hancock proved himself willing to go for the high notes, alternating between a croon and a howling yodel, while the band was full of frenetic energy, like a ramshackle jalopy careening down an old dirt road. It was exhilarating, ridiculous and a little frightening, and the large, rowdy crowd ate it up.
Most of the Pages' set floated in the territory between country and proto-rock, never quite settling down into one camp or the other. It was like a 1950’s sock hop or country hoedown full of skinny jeans and fancy hair. Especially striking was Hancock rumbling like a young Lee Hazelwood in a low register, as the lyrics warned ominously about the deceptiveness of appearances. It couldn’t have been more appropriate for a bunch of kids appropriating their grandfathers’ music.
Free Radicals with Harry Sheppard (left)
Notsuoh felt even more shoebox-like than usual as Free Radicals began setting up. Fortunately for all involved, the group did not arrive in its 50-strong international incarnation. Even filled out with Harry Sheppard on vibes and Bob Chadwick on flute, the Radicals came in at a trim quintet.
The sense of expectation was palpable as the diminutive Sheppard set up his gear, and soon a crowd-pleasing reggae-infused beat filled the small space and bodies immediately began to move. Like first-wave, instrumental ska, the scratchy guitar and tight rhythm of Nick Cooper penned “If There’s Still Hope” were infectious, lacking any of the formulaic boredom that infiltrated the genre in the 90’s.
The next groove, though just as tight, owed more to Fela Kuti and Afrobeat (which the Radicals later revisited for a suitably mystical rendition of Sun Ra’s “Call For All Demons”) A breathy jazz flute filled out the sound, while the middle section became an extended vamp with Sheppard attacking his vibes like a man possessed and special guest Kam Franklin's sexy, soulful vocals. According to saxman Jason Jackson, Kam shows up at pretty much every Radicals gig, just to sing that song, and it's not hard to see why.
Hearts of Animals, with Cley Miller of Young Mammals (right)
Though most of the crowd filed out of Notsuoh after the Free Radicals’ set, those who stuck around for Hearts of Animals provided an enthusiastic audience. After a slight technical difficulty and brief equipment swap, Mlee Marie Suprean (miss H.o.A. herself) shuffled into a set of ethereally dreamy noise pop, like shoegaze on a ‘Tussin bender.
Backed mostly by preprogrammed beats and MacBook-fed loops, Suprean’s elegant, understated vocals provided the perfect foil for HoA’s distorted pop sheen. The juxtaposition was thrilling, especially when Suprean married a crash-cymbal-heavy rumble with up-tempo, jaggedly dissonant guitars, all played off against her clean, bubblegum-sweet delivery.
About four songs into Suprean's brief set, Young Mammals singer/guitarist Cley Miller, who had been hiding out behind a speaker stack, plugged in and throttled up to a repetitive, quick-fire riff. Two minutes later, he was rushing to his own gig at Butterfly High, but the dual-guitar incursion was like a shot of adrenaline cutting through the morphine haze. Suprean then closed out with a plaintive melody highlighted by programmed banjo-picking and fuzzed-out guitar - far and away the best set of the night. - Nicholas L. Hall