A Ripple Field Report - Grand Atlantic and the Coast is Clear Tour - Jose's Underground Lounge 3/6/10

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

An old cliche, but true, and one that applies to rock 'n roll as well as any place else.  Any band can pull off a decent show when everything is meticulously managed, produced, and every moment is scripted by the "how-to-put-on-a-gig-and-be-a-rock-star" book.  But what if it ain't going by the book?  What if the book's been barfed on, covered in lighter fluid, set aflame and tossed out the fricking window?  If you really want to see what a band is made of, what character the guys bring to the stage, the true power of their craft, then check them out when things are stacked against them.  And when I mean things against them . . . I mean everything, every damn thing you can think of.  Under those circumstance, how many bands could stand up to the challenges?  How many could bust through a year's worth of unexpected crap all dumped on them at one time and still take the stage?  And of those few who dared, how many would thrive?

It wasn't that long ago that I declared Grand Atlantic's masterful album. How We Survive, one of my Top Ten favorites of 2009.  So it should come as no surprise that when I learned the cats were coming all the way from their homes in Brisbane to start a US tour right in my own backyard, I did a little Ripple dance of glee. How We Survive brought everything to the table that I've been salivating about in music these days; walls of jangling, psychedelic guitars; hypnotic, bass-heavy swirling grooves; and melodies so thick they can stand up by themselves in the corner of the room.  Or more realistically, get up and dance the night away.  I described it as the perfect combination of The Church's sweeping psych-grandeur, with the Stone Roses trance-inducing beat, and enough garage testosterone that you could still get your fists around it.  For those of you who haven't heard it, check out their myspace but be careful.  If the bands I mentioned appeal to you, you may just fall in love.

After meeting and hanging out with the guys the night before at the Hotel Utah (missed the show -- long story), Mrs. Racer and myself shot down the California Coast to catch them playing in Monterey.  Jose's Underground Lounge is a cool little space off Cannery Row, tucked away underneath a Mexican Restaurant.  A far cry from the Viper Room on Sunset, where Grand Atlantic were to be playing the next night, judging by the fliers tacked on the ceiling, Jose's still puts on quite a few shows.  Trouble is, I'll bet my last tortilla they've never worked with a band from overseas before.  Due to travel restrictions, Grand Atlantic wasn't traveling with a drum set, amps or extra guitars.  No problem at a bigger venue, but at Jose's, we got a disaster on our hands of epic proportions.  The second the Mrs and I walked in, the band's manager, Joe, whispered in my ear.  "Well, mate, looks like we got us a snare stand."  Not knowing what he was talking about, I looked at the stage where drummer Mat Von Diehm had duct-taped his snare drum to the top of a beer keg.  That was it for drums, stands and cymbals, by the way.  One snare drum duct taped to a beer keg.  And a crappy American beer at that.  Meanwhile, Jose's only had one guitar amp, although both Morgan Hann and singer Phil Usher play electric.  And bassist Sean Bower had already declared the bass amp to be something recently found on the freeway after falling off a semi.

Quite an inauspicious start.

Loaded up on Pacifico Beer and fresh tacos, Grand Atlantic's improvisation began.  The arrival of a usable drum set calmed Mat, but the absence of anything that vaguely resembled a high hat still caused a problem.  Asking a drummer to drum without a high hat is like asking a Formula One driver to race without a steering wheel.  You can get the damn thing started but you got absolutely no way of controlling where it goes.  Undaunted, Mat shrugged, gave a pantomime gesture of disgust to no one in particular, and went out for a smoke.  Phil meanwhile, unable to plug in an electric, borrowed the acoustic guitar from the night's opener, Deborah Crooks, and plugged it right into Jose's PA.  Sean simply ignored his bass amp and the guys sat down and tried to figure out what in the world they were gonna play with this improvised line up.

Well let me tell you, if you didn't know that the night wasn't going as intended, you'd never have known it from the revelation that poured over the small, but appreciative throng that night.  From the first opening chords of Grand Atlantic's chart-climbing single, "She's a Dreamer," the audience was hooked.  Only seconds passed before the women were dancing in freeform, trance-induced circles.  Even the most stoic Budweiser drinker hanging in the back, lost himself in the man-nod of approval.  Grand Atlantic had arrived.

With so much stacked against them, no one would've faulted the lads if they collectively pulled an Axel Rose, got all prima dona, and stormed off the stage.  But that's not the way Grand Atlantic play the game.  Phil strummed that borrowed acoustic with fury.  Morgan lost himself in undulating 12-string guitar flourishes.  Sean anchored the whole affair with his bass, sounding firm and solid on any amp.  And Mat?  Well, Mat's left foot pumped away furiously on a phantom high hat pedal and I swear to God, I couldn't tell the difference.  With his glorious hair flopping with each pump of his head (remember, I'm a bald man . . .  no jealously here . . .  really), Mat kept time, added textures and beats in perfect synchronicity.  By the time "She's a Dreamer," ended, every one in Jose's Underground Lounge knew that something special was going on.

With such a ragtag instrumental base, Grand Atlantic improvised the set list also, reaching way deep into their back catalog to find songs they could still pull off in this semi-acoustic/high hat-less performance.  "Smoke and Mirrors" off the This is Grand Atlantic album kept the pace going seamlessly, while "Freeway" and "Hit N Run," sounded every bit as urgent as they do on the How We Survive album.  "Chaos Theory," and "Burning Brighter," were new songs to me, and they thrived as the band's confidence in their ability to steer this ship grew.  With each passing second, you could see that confidence rising.  From the breathless-performance sweat dripping from Phil's face down onto his borrowed guitar (for which he apologized) to Sean's duck-and-weave dance of stepping to the microphone for backing vocals without hitting his head on a horribly positioned dangling paper star.  By show's end, he stopped trying to avoid that star altogether, and it almost became part of the show to watch it bouncing off Sean's forehead whenever he sang backing vocals.

"Used to Be the Sensitive Type," with it's shimmering sound and layered harmony vocals was simply spot on perfect.  Fully enraptured, the audience flowed and swayed with each turn of the melody, rising and falling with each crescendo and dip.  Mouths silently opened and sang in harmony to a song they were only hearing for the first time.  Like wise, "Just Another Ghost town," and closer, "These Are the Times," lost nothing in their makeshift format.  Once or twice, manager Joe (who of course has heard the band play 16-xillion times) would lean over and whisper in my ear, "If they only had two electric guitars, this part would soar, mate."  But you know what, it did soar, just the way it was.  And as someone who'd never seen the guys play before, I can honestly say no electric guitar or high hat were missing from my experience.

Big Star's "September Girls," and Procol Harem's "Whiter Shade of Pale" closed the encore, sandwiched around a rousing version of "Tripwires" for which Mat flipped me off for shouting out in request.  Apparently,  that song is impossible for Mat to play without a high hat.  Who knew?  Didn't stop me from screaming for it, and didn't stop me from loving it.

After the show, when I went up to Morgan to congratulate him, he smiled slyly and said, "Yeah, man.  We were really grasping at straws with that one."  Perhaps so.  But most bands can only dream of grasping so tightly.   After witnessing that gig, I can only imagine what Grand Atlantic sound like when the stage is fully set, two guitars plugged in, a working bass amp . . . and a high hat.  Seems the only way for me to find out will be to fly down to Austin and check out the guys as they decimate SXSW.  They've already been declared by the Austin press as one of the top 10 bands to catch.   So that's what I'm gonna do.  Come next Friday, I'm heading down Texas way and I'll be there in the audience, watching the crowd get carried away into the dreamlike '60's-infused psychedelic pop splendor that is Grand Atlantic.

And Mat, you better be ready.  I'll be screaming for "Tripwires," then also.



Janelle said…
Can't wait to see these guys at SXSW! Are you going this year?
Janelle said…
Sorry my serial skimming at work again. You spell it out for me. See you down there--giving you a plug at http://blog.greenlightgopublicity.com. Stay tuned. (sorry for the pun)