It was the night of a thousand riffs. At very least 100-150 very well purposed. A Small Stone Records showcase is always an occasion and this year’s Boston to-do was no exception. The scene was the Radio bar in Somerville, and though The Brought Low dropped off at the last minute owing to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the lineup boasted nine bands — Boston natives Mellow Bravo stepped in to fill the hole, playing earlier than the NYC trio would have — and it was front to back quality between them, Blackwolfgoat, who opened and also played in between sets, Supermachine, Infernal Overdrive, Lord Fowl, Freedom Hawk, Roadsaw, Lo-Pan and Gozu.
What do you do with a night like that? Well, you drink. And I did. Hard. I have a tradition — someone choosing their words less carefully might call it a “habit” — going back nearly a decade at this point of showing up to Small Stone events and promptly getting obliterated. At last year’s Philly showcase (review here and here), I played it cool for the most part. Less so this weekend. Maybe it was just that it was Saturday and I knew I had Sunday to recover, maybe it was the fact that I still didn’t know if the power was on back home yet. Whatever it was, I opened a tab and didn’t look back. My storm-refugee ass needed a night of reckless abandon.
After being dropped off in front of Radio by The Patient Mrs. as though I was on my way to my first day of kindergarten — schooled indeed — I walked in to find Darryl Shepard of Blackwolfgoat early into his set. Downstairs in the basement, a matinee of three sets of Beatles covers would soon give way to a sweaty, smelly night of punk rock. Seems as good a jump-off point as any, so here goes:
With a cocktail straw in his mouth and a bounce in his step (minus the bounce), Blackwolfgoat‘s lone resident, Darryl Shepard — also of currently of Black Pyramid and Milligram and formerly of Hackman, Roadsaw and no shortage of others — showed off some of the latest wares from his one-man act. Shepard would soon adjourn to Radio’s semi-balcony off to the left of the stage, where he’d sit at the ready and wait to drone out a tune or two between other acts, but before he got there, he played some material from last year’s Dronolith and some newer stuff. The newer songs find him using more dynamic loops, setting a droning bed for himself and then launching into — in at least one instance — a grandiose classic rock solo over it. It was awesome to see, and the melody in that solo and around it proved just one more way the project is expanding sonically. He’ll reportedly be recording soon, and of course that’s something to look forward to. Pretty much any day you get to see this dude play guitar is a good day. If you get to see him do a full set to start a show and a bunch of mini-sets between seven or eight other acts, well then, all the better.
There was an interesting mix of stage presences when it came to Boston’s own Mellow Bravo. The first full band on the bill was also the newest to Small Stone‘s roster save for Supermachine, who followed, and they released their self-titled debut album (review here) on the label via a Mad Oak Recordings imprint earlier this year. In the case of charismatic vocalist Keith Pierce and guitarist Andrew Doherty, they seemed birthed of Boston’s formidable hardcore/metalcore scene, whatever soul records they may have dug into since those days, keyboardist/vocalist Jess Collins came off more on the heavy metal end, while guitarist Jeff Fultz (ex-Seemless) had the lead licks and enviable hair of a modern classic rocker. Mix all that with the rhythm section of sunglasses-clad bassist Seager Tennis and drummer Dave Jarvis, and it’s a strange six-piece stew resulting from Mellow Bravo‘s recipe. Nonetheless, they were resoundingly cohesive, putting on a professional show — staged in parts, like when Collins came out from behind the keyboard to front “Ridin’” — and looking like a band who should and expected to be paid for their work. “Love Hammer” was a highlight, but really just one of the memorable songs on their debut that the band did well bringing to life.
There are few phrases that will earn respect in my book as quickly as “ex-Scissorfight.” In the case of label newcomers Supermachine, bassist Paul Jarvis and guitarist Jay Fortin were founding members of that most excellent New Hampshire outfit — both also played in Mess with the Bull – and so interest in what they might be doing musically was automatic, especially as this was my first time seeing them or hearing any of their songs. Joined in the four-piece by drummer Mike McNeill and vocalist David Nebbia, there was a moment where I stood in front of the stage at Radio and was reminded of hazy afternoons and evenings at Room 710 on Red River in Austin, Texas, at many a Small Stone showcase years back there, when I was still relatively just getting my feet wet in terms of appreciating and being exposed to this kind of music. If that’s a long way around to saying Supermachine sounded fresh, so be it. Their performance was organic and unpretentious — though there was no question which of them was the lead singer, even before they got on stage — and while they seemed to still be feeling out their identity as a band, they gave a good first impression.
True enough, I’d had some beers by the time Infernal Overdrive started playing, maybe visited the basement Beatles show downstairs to weird everyone in the room out by singing along to “Can’t Buy Me Love” way louder than was called for. I nonetheless recall being entirely of sound mind when I scribbled my first note about Infernal Overdrive‘s performance. It was as follows: “New shit is right on.” I stand by that 100 percent. They might need to hit the road for a while to really step into what and where they want to be as a band, but short of that, they’ve got their aesthetic down. No less so at Radio than at Stoner Hands of Doom XII in September. Part of me wants them to just go ahead and get the next record out so they can start closing with “Viking” already, but as the room was beginning to fill up, the Jersey/Massachusetts-native double-guitar foursome treated an eager and thirsty crowd to “Motor” and “The Edge” from their Last Rays of the Dying Sun 2011 debut full-length (review here) and those songs rested well alongside newer cuts like “Quints Revenge” and “Ride to the Sun.” As ever, they tore through their set, capping with the cowbell/fuzz swiftness of “I-95,” which set the stage well for Connecticut’s Lord Fowl, who followed.
Continue to impress. Despite an apparently ongoing throat problem for guitarist/vocalist Vechel Jaynes — I actually take it as a sign of someone giving a shit both about what they do and what I think about what they do when artists tell me about their various injuries, illnesses, aches and pains; that kind of thing can be good to know sometimes, though Jaynes‘ trouble did little to hold back Lord Fowl at Radio — the New Haven, Connecticut, four-piece dove headfirst into material from their Moon Queen label debut (review here), rising to the occasion of directly following Infernal Overdrive and making me remember why I like this kind of shit so much in the first place. They also gave a fitting sequel to when I saw them at SHoD XII, guitarist/vocalist Mike Pellegrino comfortable as he always seems to be fronting the band alongside Jaynes while bassist Jon Conine and drummer Don Freeman locked in grooves thick and slick in equal measure. “Streets of Nevermore” was a highlight, and the one-two punch of “Quicksand” and the insistent swirl of “SOS” was no less engaging on stage than it was late into Moon Queen. I wondered a bit what their next album might bring, if they’d keep to a thematic, semi-psych heavy rock approach or branch out elsewhere as they move forward, and then The Patient Mrs. showed up looking all fine and I got distracted. Ha.
Quietly, more than a year had passed since I last caught Virginia’s fuzz buzzards live, but Freedom Hawk were the most in their element at Radio that I’ve ever seen them. The songs from their Holding On 2011 label debut (review here) have cooled and tightened into a fine, viscous ooze, and the set had more than a few killers to it, including the recent video track “Indian Summer.” They’re a good band, and fresh on my mind as I’d just that very afternoon acquired their first demo in a haul of old promo material (more on that tomorrow), so I was glad to have our paths cross again at last. A less raucous delivery than either Lord Fowl or Infernal Overdrive – both of whom put on a hell of a show — Freedom Hawk were nonetheless in the right place at the right time. The crowd was boozed and well warmed up, and Freedom Hawk‘s “all fuzz, no bullshit” was right at home, guitarists TR Morton (also vocals) and Matt Cave leading with ’90s-style stoner rock riffing while bassist Mark Cave and drummer Lenny Hines provided weight and pulse to the rolling groove. I don’t know if someone thought they were being clever by playing Ozzy before they went on (Morton‘s vocals being geared in that direction), but Freedom Hawk showed they’re moving more toward becoming their own outfit and incorporating whatever influence it might be — Ozzy, Fu Manchu, Kyuss, etc. — into a sound more fully theirs. Worth noting that at this point there hadn’t yet been a band whose next album I wasn’t stoked at the thought of hearing.
In true showcase fashion, Roadsaw delivered a set that not only showed why they’re the godfathers of Boston’s heavy rock scene, but ran a gamut through their own catalog — opening with “Look Pretty Lonely” from 2008′s See You in Hell!, and also including “Keep on Sailing” and “Thanks for Nothing” from 1997′s Nationwide — on which Shepard joined on lead guitar from his spot on the balcony — “Buried Alive” and “Disconnected” from 2007′s Rawk ‘n’ Roll, “Monkey Skull” from 2012′s Roadsaw EP, and “Weight in Gold” and “Long in the Tooth” from their 2010 self-titled full-length. I said earlier this year at London Desertfest that I wanted to see them on their home turf, and I was glad to have the opportunity at last. If it’s any indicator of how it all went down, they delayed the start of their set to get another round of drinks. Yes, it was that kind of party. The stage at Radio wasn’t as small as that at the Small Stone showcase in Philly last year — it was somewhere between that and the more spacious at the El ‘n’ Gee in Connecticut, where SHoD was held, and which Roadsaw also played — so I didn’t think vocalist Craig Riggs was about to bean bassist Tim Catz or guitarist Ian Ross with his spinning microphone (ever-shirtless drummer Jeremy Hemond being well out of range), but they made short work of it nonetheless, and even went so far as to bring up Infernal Overdrive guitarist/vocalist Marc Schleicher for an encore of “The Gentle Butcher,” from Nothing that a Bullet Couldn’t Cure by the band Antler, of which he, Ross, Catz and Riggs were a part. As ever, they were in classic form.
A scant two weeks before leaving for a tour with High on Fire and Goatwhore that will have them playing in the biggest venues of their career to date, Columbus, Ohio’s Lo-Pan looked ready. I think they’ve already discovered that the reward for the hard work they’ve been putting in over the last couple years is actually just a bunch of even harder work, but they seemed hungry nonetheless. It had been more than a year since I’d seen them as well, and along with a new shorter haircut for guitarist Brian Fristoe, they had two new songs in the set alongside cuts from 2011′s brilliant-and-yes-I-fucking-mean-brilliant Salvador (review here). Both “Eastern Seas” and “Colossus” had Fristoe‘s steady progressive-edged fuzz, made thicker by Skot Thompson‘s basslines, but seemed to push vocalist Jeff Martin farther into his range as well as Jessie Bartz — front and center as always — tied it all together on drums. As I told Bartz when they were done, I’d like to hear them 85 or 87 more times before I make final judgment, but they sounded pretty dead on, and fit well with “Kurtz” from 2009′s Sasquanaut (which Small Stone reissued) and “Chichen Itza,” “Deciduous,” “Bird of Prey” and set closer “El Dorado” from Salvador, all of which remain as powerful in a live setting as they were the first time I saw them. Lo-Pan was my only real headbang of the show. When they were done, I stumbled my drunk self around the side of the building and threw up barely a fraction of the beer I’d drank, taking care to keep it out of my hair and beard, then went back inside, washed up downstairs while trying to ignore the stench of punker sweat, lest I retch again, and headed back into civilization in time for the start of Gozu, who rounded out the night. I’d been a wreck despite having my last beer sometime during Roadsaw, but with just one band still to go, there was no turning back now.
Much to his credit, it was Gozu guitarist Doug Sherman – he of the perilously short guitar strap — who put the whole gig together. From the second I was walking into the venue, way back before anyone played other than Blackwolfgoat, before all the beer, the barbecue, the more beer, the rock and roll and the more beer, Sherman was outside greeting people, there the whole time, and he and his band very quickly showed by they were just right to close out. Guitarist/vocalist Marc Gaffney (above, left) has a subdued presence on stage, quiet and reserved — a good balance for Sherman‘s energy — and his performance has been spot on every time I’ve seen him, making vocal up and down vocal dexterity look easy while also joining Sherman on guitar and driving the songs forward with driving riffage. Bassist Joe Grotto was a new addition to the band since I saw them in March — also at Radio, as it happens — but he fit right in the rhythm section with drummer Barry Spillberg, and being revived following my ritualistic purge, I was in decent enough shape to appreciate their even-thicker take on “Meat Charger” and “Meth Cowboy” from their 2010 Locust Season debut (review here), on which they were joined by Ian Ross of Roadsaw (above, on right guitar). Their sound is too thick to really be a boogie, but that forward motion is there, and Gaffney brings a sense of drama to their choruses that stood them out from everyone else on the bill at Radio. They had a couple new songs as well, and whatever they do next, it’ll be a welcome arrival.
I know I post a lot of shit about Small Stone bands. I go see them play when I can, I review the records, I do interviews, post tour news, posters, and so forth, but the fact of the matter is this: That’s not coincidence. It’s a short list of American labels contributing anything of merit to the genre of heavy rock — by my estimation there are maybe five, with a few others who’ve glommed onto this or that trend within the sphere of Riff — and Small Stone are right there at the top. From the label’s days providing a haven to bands like Acid King and Sons of Otis in the wake of Man’s Ruin‘s demise, to fostering its own upstart acts like Sasquatch (not that they’re upstarts now, but they were when their debut was released), Infernal Overdrive, Gozu, Lo-Pan, Sun Gods in Exile, and Lord Fowl, while still keeping a commitment to what he does best, label head Scott Hamilton has patronized some of the best American heavy rock out there today, to the point where “the Small Stone sound” is an influence unto itself for bands around the world to pick up on. To be perfectly honest about it, it’s a cause I feel is worth supporting.
Small Stone’s next showcase is in Detroit at the Magic Stick on Dec. 1. More info here.
When the show was done, I was so tired I thought I’d fall asleep walking to catch a cab back to the hotel. There were goodbyes to be said, tales of hurricane survival to regale with and be regaled by, and a bar tab to close out, but I was quick about it, and before too long, The Patient Mrs. generously corralled me into a taxi. I was more lucid than I had been at several points in the evening by then, but still, sleep came as quick and as heavy as the riffs still stuck in my head. We had to drive back to Jersey on Sunday and figure out if the lights were back on yet after the storm (they were as of that afternoon), but if that was to be the finale of “refugee living,” I didn’t make out so bad.
Many more pics after the jump.