Marcus Congleton… I love you. I needed to get that off my chest because after my first listen to Ambulance LTD’s debut, LP, back in 2004, I was as impressed with your music as I was with the originality of your record’s name. But then, out of absolutely nowhere, your songs started to grow on me like a case of poison ivy. In the course of three consecutive tracks you jumped from cool rock swagger to a Beatles-esque ballad of unrequited love, before flowing into a shoegazer lull that would make any Slowdive fan proud. Six months of repeated listening and suddenly no track on the album was worth skipping. Quite simply, I had you all wrong. When your band put out that teaser New English EP, I was pleased, especially with your cover of Pink Floyd’s “Fearless”, but I could not wait for your proper full-length sophomore follow up.
And wait and wait I have.
24 Jul 2008: Bowery Ballroom New York, NY
No, we aren’t talking a Chinese Democracy-esque gap here, but it has been a while. When I started to poke my nose around to see what your band was up to, only then did I discover the trials and tribulations that you have been through to get this album finished and pressed. First, your three band mates jumped ship, forming a different band called The Red Romance, leaving you alone to continue working under the Ambulance moniker. Then, reports start going out that the album is going to be produced by legendary Velvet Underground bassist, John Cale. The next thing I read, though, is that your label files for Chapter 11 and is looking to auction off the rights to your recording contract. But does this discourage you at all? Does this seem like a sign from the gods to hang up your guitar and go grab a cubical at some nameless corporation? No! You keep on writing new songs, you put together a new lineup, and you start touring. Early reports of your recent shows are strong and I am ecstatic that I get to see you play my favorite New York venue, the Bowery Ballroom.
But a couple minutes after I walk into the room, towards the end of the opening band’s set, I notice that the Bowery crowd is a bit different this evening. The majority of the audience are older, possibly 40-plus, and look like music industry types. New Yorkers do not have the best reputation for paying attention to a headliner’s opening acts, but this is easily the loudest I have ever heard this room. Soft, the second opening act of the evening, is trying to play above the chatter to no avail. A guy resembling Jeff, Larry David’s lawyer from Curb Your Enthusiasm, is negotiating a deal on his cell phone beside me while he spills his beer over my feet. I could care less that I am getting doused by beer, but something in me is innately irritated when it becomes clear he came here this evening to do anything but listen to music.
A bit later Marcus Congleton walks out onto the stage with his guitar hanging from his shoulder to survey a crowd that’s half amped with anticipation and half distracted and uninterested. He looks extremely casual in a white button down and jeans, but what I notice immediately is his lack of expression. The last time I saw the band perform, back in 2005, he played the front man in a more traditional sense, accentuating his vocal range and connecting with his audience. Tonight I notice his eyes scanning the crowd but nothing approaching a smile ever creeps up on his face.
The band opens with “New English”, a popular live song from the previous lineup’s touring years. The crowd is engaged during the upbeat, familiar song as the melody and Congleton’s croon sail above the crowd’s chatter. The band then opts to play a couple of new songs that have a more stripped-down classic rock feel to them and the vast majority of the room becomes completely disconnected—running to the bar for a refill or outside for a cigarette break. I am no more than twenty feet from the stage, an area usually designated for the fans and respectful observers, yet everyone around me is in the midst of a conversation. Still, in between songs, a few people do scream requests at the band citing some older favorites.
When these songs appear, like “Heavy Lifting” and “Ophelia”, the crowd starts singing along to what looks like the ire of Congleton and his new crew. And like clockwork, as soon as the band attempts to work in some new material, the crowd loses focus and the music can barely be heard above the din of the audience. I stare at the stage, bewildered and sympathetic. The new members of the band look annoyed having to play the music of a band whose name they now share but whose songs they played no part in creating. And poor Congleton—after all he has gone through, this is what his once hyped and critically acclaimed band has been reduced to. As I stood in the shadows of this train wreck, watching a band’s live potential ruined by circumstance, I do my best to persevere through the set. But, after convincing myself it could not get any worse, a paper airplane (a paper airplane!) flies from the rafters. I turned to my friend and we both walked out the back entrance.
On our subway home, we both complained about the unfortunate lack of respect from the crowd and how it was sad that neither of us was now excited for the new album. Regardless, I will certainly listen to the new Ambulance LTD record when—or if—it is ever released, but part of me has to wonder how many more hurdles Marcus Congleton can face before enough is enough. Perhaps he needs to go back to the drawing board. Maybe he needs a completely new clean slate. Then again maybe all he needs to do is recall the famous sage-like advice of Neil Young—“it’s better to burn out than fade away.”