The Mendoza Line
A triple-header of critically acclaimed alternative rock hit the stage and was met by a nearly empty nightclub. The musicians gamely played on, but to almost no one there. Such is the state of indie rock on a Monday night in a quiet Midwestern college town.
Local instrumental four-piece combo Marah Mar led off the show to an audience of approximately 20 people. Marah Mar perform a dense but delicate style of music, highlighted by Jessica Fischoff’s resonant cello mixed with the eclectic sounds of Mike Kvidera’s and Mike Samos’s guitars and Daniel Murphy’s percussion, keyboard and computer effects. Despite the Indian Summer temperatures outside the venue, Marah Mar created an atmosphere reminiscent of a Russian winter, with whirling winds blowing through bare branches, and the echoes of a horse-driven troikas clamoring in the distance. The waves of repetitive sounds would alternately increase and decrease in intensity and volume, moving faster, slower, faster, and louder, quieter, louder.
Several audience members must have been friends of the Marah Mar, for when the group finished playing, the crowd thinned it to about 12 people. Charles Bissell of The Wrens took the stage next. Bissell, who had recently performed in Chicago with The Wrens on Friday and Saturday night, did not appear bothered by the small audience. Bissell strummed and picked a Rickenbacker-style electric guitar with a minimum of special effects, not counting several delay/echo pedals he employed to produce lovely, textured, melodic instrumentals in counterpoint and harmony with himself. Bissell said eight of the nine tunes he played were Wrens tunes, including a splendid, swirling rendition of “She Sends Kisses”, which revealed Bissell’s ability to intertwine pop hooks into a slightly psychedelic pop masterpiece. (The other song was an unidentified Dire Straits’ song.) Bissell’s lyrics don’t always make sense, but he knows how to phrase them so that the most interesting lines stand out and attract attention. “I love my boy and that’s why I’m leaving,” Bissell began one song whose deeper meanings or even continued narrative was never made clear. Or “These are dangerous days,” he sang without making clear why—was this a political point, or the words of an emotionally fragile human being? The combination of atmospheric guitar lines and ambiguous lyrics created a dreamlike effect.
The balding, middle-aged New Jersey rocker, dressed in shiny blue pants, scuffed brown shoes, and a stained gray-green T-shirt with a graphic resembling a piece of Bazooka bubblegum but with the band Sonic written where the word Bazooka would normally appear, smiled and spoke gently between songs. “I haven’t done any solo gigs in two weeks,” he explained, “I apologize for the sketchiness.” However, it was this very simple presentation that made Bissell’s performance charming. The songs ranged from about 90 seconds to three and a half minutes in time, short enough to be perky and long enough to capture the listener: the perfect range for a pop song. “I put your favorite records on,” he sang delicately, “spin around”—as he evoked the simple, joyful pleasure of music.
The six-piece Athens, Georgia-based The Mendoza Line took the stage last, outnumbering what was left of the audience by one, unless one counted Bissell who sat to watch. That’s not entirely accurate, as some people entered and left the bar during the show, swelling the number to ten at various times. The Mendoza Line and Bissell joined forces to play a six-city tour together. The next night they would be performing at Minneapolis’s 7th Avenue Annex, during the same time the hometown baseball team versed the New York Yankees in the American League playoffs and Bruce Springsteen, REM, John Fogerty and Coner Oberst headlined at the Xcel Energy Center to elect Senator John Kerry to the White House. Who knows, the Iowa City crowd may have dwarfed the audience they would face on Tuesday.
Still, The Mendoza Line gave a credible show. The combo, which features four people playing amplified stringed instruments, a drummer, and a female vocalist, performed as if the concert mattered. They started off by offering several mid-tempo numbers before kicking it into high gear around midnight. Their music had a rousing quality. They weren’t ready to go to bed and didn’t want the crowd to be sleepy either. Still, while it may be hard to start a fire without a spark, it’s even harder to create musical energy without a crowd. The group was largely playing for the band members itself, and it’s in the band’s honor that the effort was put forth. I left unnoticed before the show was finished.