Because personal transformation is one of the essential qualities of rock 'n' roll -- a mama's boy becomes king; the high school stoner plays to an arena of fawning jocks -- it's surprising that pesky authenticity remains such a ballyhooed ideal, especially among the kind of folks who hang out at the Kilowatt. Transformation should cancel out any argument for authenticity, but in the case of Verbena, a four-piece from Birmingham, Ala., the two coexist, thanks to a clever trick: They have reworked their sound from ineffectual pop into a junked-up, buzzed-out Southern rock that feels like it belonged to them before they found it.
While Verbena opened their set at exactly 9 p.m. with "Hot Blood," the first cut off Souls for Sale (what utterly rockist, nearly ridiculous, titles), it was a song they played several numbers later that really spotlights the group's transformation and authenticity cachet. A year ago, it was a 7-inch record called "I Say So." More recently on Souls, and at the Kilowatt, it was called the mucho mas rock "So What." Before, it was a lo-fi indie song where lead singer/guitarist Scott Bondy flatly, quietly sang, "'Cause even when the money's gone, I want to ... hold on to nothing," over a slow chord progression and a long bridge. Live, it buzzed with distortion, clipped the bridge for added punch, and Bondy sneered exaggerated "'cause"s and "nothin' "s. It screamed big rock. It screamed browbeat Southitude.
Verbena don't sound like the Rolling Stones, but it's the most accurate reference point nonetheless. They are the Stones, or everything that used to be important about the Stones, oh, about a lifetime ago. Onstage, outfitted in their thrift store finery and braggart's swagger, Verbena oozed fashion and attitude. Verbena's lyrics said little, but managed to seem like they meant a lot. Most important, Verbena's stacked riffs and chord progressions all sounded not like the band had studied the Southern blues with academic vigor, but as if they had absorbed it through their pores as babes.
By the end of the 40-minute set, at the climax of "Kiss Yourself," Bondy stomped on distortion pedals and swung his guitar in a clumsy stumble. He fell to the floor, and the neck of his guitar got caught in the cable plugged into Anne Marie Griffin's rhythm guitar while she burned through the chord progression. He clamored for a microphone, desperately screaming over and over the last lines: "Let's just pretend that we're real!"
After the show, it made perfect sense when I watched a guy in one of those hip sleazebag leather jackets that looks like it came off the set of Donnie Brasco approach a friend of mine with apprehension.
"So these guys are from here?" he asked.
"No, they're from Alabama."
"Oh," he said, processing that concept of Southern authenticity for just a second. "Oh. Yeah, they were great."
-- Jeff Stark
Dred Scott Trio
Eddie Moore Jazz Festival
Tuesday, Aug. 12
The Dred Scott Trio wore sunglasses -- dark, obnoxious UV blockers. Pianist and bandleader Scott's were thick, round, white numbers with smoky black lenses that matched his white leather jacket. Bass guitarist Wilbur Krebs opted for a pair of sleek gray ones. And drummer Joe Brigandi's were reminiscent of the Gargoyle wraparounds that Arnold Schwarzenegger wore in Terminator 2: Judgment Day: black lenses, in black frames. Practically speaking, wearing shades probably made it easier for the three to block out any visual distractions from the intimate Yoshi's Nitespot bandstand. But foremost, the trio's eye accessorizing played into a tacky-cool showmanship that Scott indulges in every chance he gets. Fifteen years ago, he might have been described as a disciple of psychedelic subterfuge coupled with post-cool intensity. But in our modern age of musical eclecticism, his pathos is not as easily pinned to the donkey. A fixture in that SOMA crowd of hip-boppers -- with whom the Broun Fellinis, Josh Jones, Graham Connah, and Charlie Hunter are affiliated -- Scott's strength as a keyboardist has always seemed more rhythmic and percussive than melodic. He is the culprit feeding you squealing chords over kick drum-heavy breakbeats as you start the second verse of your freestyle rhyme (witness his collaborations with Alphabet Soup, the improvisational band that features two local rap talents).
On this second evening of the Jazz in Flight-sponsored Eddie Moore tribute, Scott was also the brain behind a collection of piano-driven arrangements that started with an extended version of Pink Floyd's "Breathe in the Air" and concluded with a rousing interpretation of "Time for the Hard Stuff," an Allman Brothers number covered on his trio's latest recording. The intermediate time was littered with standards and original tunes that stretched out along the jazz continuum, connecting bebop to cool to avant-garde. But more important, the night's performance was strewn with mood swings, sometimes boisterous and frolicsome ("Well You Might"), other times more esoteric ("Swirlee Girlie"). And then there were those contemplative moments, as in "A Gentle Behind Her" or "Bad Car Sickness (Black Narcissus)," featuring Krebs' subtle, Spanish-inflected strumming.
Krebs has a way of raising the stakes on any tune he is featured on. He plays four-string and 12-string bass guitar with an ear for the melody, rhythmic texture, and counterpoint all traditionally shunned by most bassists in favor of strict timekeeping. Fortunately, the metronomic role was left primarily to drummer Brigandi, who spent the majority of the night driving the beat wherever it was supposed to go.
But the evening's crowning jam came shortly after Scott relayed an anecdote about popping mushrooms at one of his first visits to the old Yoshi's, on Claremont Avenue in Oakland (the new Nitespot is located in the ever-hipper Jack London Square district of downtown Oakland). "In memory of that show," he growled, "we're all on mushrooms tonight." The crowd went wild with glee. "And now, 'Swirlee Girlie.' " Finally, a concrete reason for wearing sunglasses at night -- if you can take the word of a musician wearing a huge dollar-sign medallion, a low-cut print shirt, nylon warm-ups, and Puma sneakers.
-- Victor Haseman