11 Nov 2009: Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar Charlottesville, VA
I had spent the early part of the evening talking to a friend about the past, about the specters that appear now and again. The drive to the show took me through empty roads during a light rain, a pleasant enough time, with the mist diffusing the streetlights and the vacant town providing a comfortable sort of chill. These sorts of nights tend toward the epiphanic. I wondered what I’d reach at the end of a reflective day, and what parts of my character might be exposed. I considered how the zombie-rock I was about to hear would help. I’d have to wait a little while to find out.
I was excited to see Jookabox live. Their two most recent albums, last year’s Ropechain and Dead Zone Boys have been two of my favorites from the last couple years. The band, essentially the brain-child of David “Moose” Adamson, has grown from a lo-fi electronic take on the blues and folk traditions (what might have happened had hick-hop actually caught on) into a noisy, energy form of rock. The band last recorded primarily as a duo, but has expanded to a four-piece, which I was hoping would help release the recorded freneticism in an effective manner.
But the place was empty. I arrived just a few minutes before showtime but, aside from a few kids in the back of the building, I was the only one there. I grabbed a beer and a local alt-weekly and waited. The rain that I poeticized on my drive in had turned into a deterrent, and the last-minute scheduling of the show wasn’t helping.
Finally, a man came in to join the audience. I spoke to him and he got scared and ran away.
Later a girl from the back came up to order a drink. She looked at me, and I got a little scared, but I didn’t run away.
The band waited an hour to go on, hoping for some latecomers. I spent the time texting people who had inexplicably left their phones off before meeting the venue’s promoter. I apologized unnecessarily for not having been out to a show in a while; I bravely blamed my children. I listened to my horoscope even though I think horoscopes have a winking creepiness to them.
I chatted with Adamson and keyboardist/vocalist Lisa Berlin, and they were taking the small crowd in stride. The extra time gave me the opportunity to find out about the frightening vision that convinced Adamson to drop the “Grampall” from the group’s name, but I can’t bring myself to share it.
Finally, the scared man returned to the building and the show started. In good spirits, Adamson dedicated the first song to me. Someone in the group suggested it go to the show’s promoter instead, so we split the dedication. I felt sad. Even in a roomful of three, I couldn’t get my own song dedication.
Jookabox stayed upbeat, and played as if the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar were packed with adoring fans and contract-waving A&R reps. The group kicked off with “Phantom Don’t Go”, a pounding number that set the tone for the night (as it does for Dead Zone Boys as well). Immediately the benefits of the four-piece were apparent. Patrick Okerson hammered one small drum kit, while Adamson moved from guitar to working the samples to adding extra percussion. The key part of the change was the presence of Benny Sanders on bass. With Sanders’ bass more prominent in the mix, his fast, complex lines added a new layer to the group’s music.
It was an imperfect night. Some of the equipment produced a slight buzz, and Berlin’s vocals were too low in the mix (especially problematic when she came out from behind her keys and took the lead vocals on “Light”). The band, either inherently or freed by the lack of a crowd, seemed unfazed and rattled off a series of loud, intense numbers, warning us about “desperate phantoms coming for your money” and only showing an ambivalence toward embracing these creatures.
The setlist came mostly from the new record, but one highlight came with the performance of a Ropechain cut. “The Girl Ain’t Preggers” uses its silly title to cover the complicated emotions inside, during which a narrator feels first relief and then grief over the discovery that his girlfriend isn’t pregnant. Jookabox’s recordings use electronic effects, submerged vocals, and idiosyncratic atmospherics, but with much of that pulled away, the clarity of expression came out here, the honesty of feeling two ways at once, and of hurting from both of them.
The group hammered to a close with another of my favorites, “You Cried Me”, notable for its comical howling vocal line, taken almost over the top (in a good way) by the quartet, with a new keyboard part replacing the record’s rapid strum. It’s a fun romp covering troubled emotions and destructiveness. We do that sometimes, simultaneously grabbing and pushing others. We might actually be able to shake off our love of flesh-eaters and phantoms, but the song’s a nice catharsis all the same.
Then it ended, at just 45 minutes in, with a good sweat being worked up. At one point I thought about dancing. I didn’t.
I never thought about having an epiphany (you know, the kind you bring on yourself when you try hard enough). Maybe there was something there, though, if I just look back properly. After all, it was a very scary night, from which I escaped through the dark and the rain and the lonely corridor, the specters diffuse behind me, but still ever-present.