[30 March 2007]
Not everyone has heard of Nightingales, but the people who have tend to be fans…rabid fans. Founded in the early ‘80s out of the ashes of the Prefects (another band that shoulda, coulda, woulda, but mostly didn’t), the Nightingales made four remarkable albums in the decade of greed: Pigs on Purpose in 1982, Hysterics in 1983, Just the Job in 1984, and In a Good Old Country Way in 1986.
Frontman Robert Lloyd had a more or less standing invitation to record with John Peel anytime he had a handful of new songs, and there was a period when the Nightingales (and other Lloyd projects) had been on the legendary BBC show more times than anyone except Kevin Coyne. (Both were subsequently lapped by the indefatigable Mark E. Smith.) It was after one of these sessions that Peel said, “The Nightingales turned in a performance of the type that will serve to confirm their excellence when other infinitely better known bands stand revealed as Charlatans.”
The band never really broke up but rather entered a long dormant period that encompassed the late ‘80s and most of the ‘90s, a time during which Lloyd produced girl group We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It. In 2005 the band reemerged, CPR’d to life by a well-received Acute Records reissue of old Prefects Material (The Prefects… Are Amateur Wankers), and played its first American shows ever. A year later, the Nightingales released their first album in ten years, the brash, sardonic, and wonderful Out of True. Lloyd, who pulled his first US tour band together with just enough time to leave for America, had a seasoned outfit to play with him this time. Alan Apperly from the Prefects and (much younger) Matt Wood played guitar; Daren Garratt from Pram held manic sway over the drum set; and Ste Lowe played the bass. A tour seemed in order. They turned up on the schedule at the Abbey Lounge in Somerville, MA. I cashed in all my remaining brownie points (sorry, no more Boston shows this year) and headed out.
I arrived late, finding Lloyd and his crew out on the sidewalk having a smoke. Opening act the Victoria Lucas, a Brooklyn band that had connected with the Nightingales on their last UK tour, were setting up. It was then that a series of weird coincidences unfolded: it turned out that Nate Knaebel—the bass player for the Victoria Lucas—and I both write for the same website (not this one). I met Chuck Warner, who runs the excellent Hyped2Death web site and discovered that we lived on the same street in Fort Wayne, Indiana, though not at the same time. “Whoa…” seemed like the only reasonable response. With all this in mind, we went inside to see the Victoria Lucas, whom nobody seemed to know much about.
The Victoria Lucas
Even after seeing the Victoria Lucas, I’m still having trouble describing exactly what they do. To put it in the most basic terms, it’s a five-piece rock band, where four of the members play more or less standard instruments (two guitars, bass, drums), and the fifth, Andy Levine, kicks in on trombone and theremin as the spirit moves him. This is no joke. He’s actually a really impressive trombone player, with the sort of tone and embouchure that betrays years of band geekdom. And yet, the Victoria Lucas don’t play music that fits any of the genres known for using trombones…not post-rock or fusion or prog-pop or whatever the hell Architecture in Helsinki are. They’re a rock band with tendencies toward ‘80s post-punk stridency, abrasive Wire-y tunefulness and Mekons-referencing cowpunk. Some of their songs are short and sharp and spiky, while others drone with otherworldly, VU-nodding repetition.
The band was suffering from poor sound on this occasion, so you could only pick out bits and pieces of the words. (Warner said that, after years of mixing and remixing his records, he had to physically restrain himself from going back and adjusting the sound board himself.) So, it’s difficult to say exactly what they played, except that the slinky, blues-skanking song dedicated to Pittsburgh was almost certainly “Allegheny/Mongohelia” and the clattering, time-bending, shape-shifting closer (with Nightingales drummer Garat pounding the shit out of a cowbell), was (most probably) “Back to Junk.” My guess is that with a decent sound guy, they’d be excellent… After all, they were pretty damned good without one.
There was a short break during which a guy came up to me and asked if I was writing my grocery shopping list. (I’d left my notebook in the car again and was scribbling notes on the back of a cancelled check and, when that ran out, a flyer someone had just thrust into my hand.) And then, with a resounding clatter of drums, the Nightingales began, kicking their set off with “Born Again in Birmingham,” the lead-off track from Out of True. The drummer was completely mad, sticks flinging well over his head then crashing down into the kit to form the tune’s boxy signature beat. Lloyd leaned ominously over the mic, hands cupped around his mouth to help create a sinister, insinuating growl. Alan Apperly, who’s played guitar in Lloyd bands for going on 30 years, was dapper and self-contained, locked in continual interplay with bass player Ste Lowe. Matt Wood, who couldn’t have been born when the Prefects first roamed the earth, stood poker straight and expressionless as he strummed hard and fast on a lyre guitar.
Without a pause, the band finished “Born Again” and headed directly into the thumping cadences of “The Chorus Is in the Title,” slouchy guitar chords and steadily pounding drums under Lloyd’s caustic lyrics. Then there was a dead stop—Nightingales’ songs are full of dead stops—and Lloyd grinned, letting it go on just a little longer than anyone expected…then it was back to business, with a drama-laden chorus. Both the guitars and the bass frantically strummed a series of rising anxious notes, and Lloyd’s voice broke into a vibrato bleat.
Last time I saw the Nightingales—in 2003—their set was looser and full of interruptions. This time, they worked a Ramones model: one cut lead directly into another, the intensity never let up, and the drummer never stopped. With a shouted “One, two, three, four” from Apperly, Lowe ignited another rickety beat, and Lloyd launched into a new song, “Drummer Man,” from an EP coming out later this spring. On the record (which Lloyd very kindly slipped me), it’s the kind of sweet story of a hardened tour-vet apologizing to wife and kids for his absences. On stage, it was blistering, confrontational, and threatening, the band periodically breaking off from the relentless beat into a chaotic, triplet-based meltdown. Lloyd eyed the crowd challengingly during the crash-to-a-halt stop, before giving up the pay-off line, “I’m the drummer man.” The song worked the band hard, especially the drummer…so there was a palpable sense of relief as they stepped back for the next cut, a rambling, a capella monologue for Lloyd.
Lloyd had been drinking a bottle of John Jameson steadily. I don’t know where he started, but, at this point, he was close to the bottom of the label, and it seemed to bring out the fighter in him. At one point, he sang a line about being from Birmingham, and the audience hooted and clapped. He stopped, glared at us wickedly, and said “You people are so fucking perverse. Everywhere I go, I get applause for that line. What is it about Birmingham? I’m not even from there.” Someone yelled out “Roy Wood,” the Birmingham-born founder of bands the Move and ELO, and Lloyd got a devilish gleam in his eye. “I’ll tell you something about Roy Wood,” he said, with a long pause. “He gives terrible head.” And on it went.
When someone in the audience yelled “awesome,” Lloyd made fun of the word. “You people walk down the street and it’s ‘awesome.’” It wasn’t quite out of control—you could tell from the look in Lloyd’s eye that he was still very much running the show—but it felt a little bit dangerous, and you don’t see that at rock shows much anymore.
By this time, the band had re-tuned and re-grouped, so Lloyd ripped into the “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” of “Company Man,” the band clattering and rampaging along behind him. The song is about as vicious and funny a send-up of mid-level corporate life as you’re ever going to hear, with Lloyd spitting out one-liners and the band responding “Company Man.” A violinist named Clara came up on stage…“We met this woman on the street,” Lloyd said before letting her drop violent, slashing fiddlework into the mix, careering off the Middle-Eastern chaos of new song “Wot No Blog” and entering into the blinding density of Nightingales classic “How to Age.” Here Lloyd sank to the floor, mic in hand, murmuring the song’s ominous lyrics, as the band spun a hypnotic groove from overlapping notes and relentless rhythms. The song went on and on, circling and rebounding on itself, establishing a drone then ripping it to shreds. If you had to put the Nightingales into a category, it would obviously be post-punk, but this song was as mind-alteringly transporting as any Terrastock psyche band’s grooves. It was mesmerizing, heady stuff, a perfect close to the main part of the set.
A short break and then the encore. Here, a blistering rockabilly-on-speed song called “Let’s Think About Living” from Out of True reminded everyone how the Nightingales spliced punk and country with A Good Old Country Way, dropping mad hoedown guitars and swooping violins. And then the band covered T. Rex’s “Slider,” a gleeful, extended glam, joyride that stretched endlessly out on guitar-based vamps and might have gone on forever. And we wished it had, because once it was over, it was over, and who knows how long it’ll be before the Nightingales will be stateside again.