In 1998, the bluesy British rock quintet Gomez won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. Critics heaped acclaim upon their rambling, rich debut album, Bring it On. Well-positioned on a Virgin records subsidiary, the boys from Southport, England were lauded as the Next Big Thing.
Gomez never delivered -- critically or commercially. Its members traded the layered strut of their debut for the radio-friendly, anonymous pop-rock of later albums like In Our Gun. The band's recordings grew more cleanly produced -- and less interesting -- with each release. Big-time sales didn't occur, and Gomez was dropped from Virgin, signing eventually with Dave Matthews' ATO Records. Subsequent releases may have pleased a base of enthusiastic fans, but the band hasn't been on the ascendancy in a decade.
Last night, as Gomez kicked off a three-night run at Great American Music Hall, that history didn't matter. Still working their asses off, the members of Gomez played a set of immaculately constructed, Americana-flavored, crowd-pleasing inspiro-rock. There was nothing surprising, but lots to enjoy: a sparkling, gorgeously rendered performance of the smooth blues stomps and countryish laments they've been cranking out with increasing skill over the past 12 years. The five musicians, three of whom rotated among the complex of instruments onstage, betrayed a practiced showmanship, nailing their songs' sudden shifts of direction and at times complex structures. Even when the members weren't on their home instrument, they played with thrilling crispness that had the dancing, celebratory St. Patrick's Day crowd cheering generously. Newer songs such as "Win Park Slope" and "Little Pieces," off of last year's album A New Tide, won some of the most elated whoops at their outset -- which perhaps isn't surprising, given that A New Tide features some of the band's most memorable work this millennium.
There were reminders that Gomez basically doles out bland jam-rock. Ben Ottewell's throaty, too-passionate voice still sounds like an amalgamation of every male rock singer on FM radio in the early 2000s, and the drabness of some songs at times wandered into easy-listening territory. But when there were adventurous elements to the music, last night's lush mix let them come beaming through: It thrust up the gritty glare of Ottewell's slide guitar playing, made a separate sonic place for each one of drummer Olly Peacock's forty million cymbals, and cutely cast the bouncing ping-pong ball that concludes one number. If anyone wonders why Gomez, now nearly obscure, still tours -- and why their concert tomorrow night is already sold out -- it's because their live show fronts the best aspects of a band that was once recognized for having many of them.
Buddy, the opening band, is just beginning its career. Led by the 38-year-old Portland transplant Buddy Humberston, the L.A. practicioners of so-called "Wimpycore" -- a coupling of the indie-pop sound with the lyrical sincerity of emo -- showed last night that whatever wimpy means to them, it includes a hearty helping of distorted rock blowouts and thunderous climaxes. Little of that angsty energy has come through in Buddy's recordings so far, but the band hopes to release a full album in the next few months, on which we expect less preciousness and more grit. They captured much love from the older crowd last night, winning wide smiles and disbelieving applause with excited, earnest, familiar-sounding rock and infectious enthusiasm from the members onstage. Al Sgro seemed to play the tambourine with her whole body, even breaking off one its bells mid-song. Guitarist Percy Haverson looked as excited to hear his band's songs hit as many in the crowd did. At the end, Humberston led the crowd in an epic chant and hopped onto the Great American's wood floor to clap overhead, too. He disappeared in the mob for a while, still howling but without a mic, and reappearred on the other side of the stage, sweaty and nearly hoarse. With his neck muscles throbbing, Humberstin grabbed his ax and blared out a big, grungy zenith one more time, to huge cheers. It felt like the highlight of the night.