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Clem Snide + John Vanderslice + Short Stack

(4 Mar 2002: Black Cat — Washington, DC)

Driving, driving, driving. Listening to music and driving. Driving, driving, missing the exit off I-495 and driving. You’d think there’d be more signage for such an exit. Next exit, turn around, back on the interstate. Driving, laughing about error, driving, missing the exit. Again. Missing the exit again. Laughter subsiding, anger rising, taking next exit for same road in different direction. Driving through four lights, seven lights, ferocious U-Turn on the ninth light. Back in the game. Driving, laughing again, driving, missing the next exit. Swearing. Hitting dashboard instruments and steering wheel, chain-smoking, swearing, swearing, driving. Fuck. Turn around. Looking for left turn. Anywhere, a left turn. Driving, driving, not talking, driving. An army of dangling signs, 30 yards apart, all apparently championing death for any fool who dares to make a left turn. Driving, fucking driving, smoking, driving. Making a second ferocious U-Turn at the same intersection. Driving, in the same spot twice for the second time in 20 minutes, driving. This is what happens when you’re lost, stoned and late for a concert.


Driving, bewilderment, dark, dark streets in D.C. The right road. The right turn. The correct turn. The Black Cat. The fucking Black Cat. Finally.


But an arrival is an arrival, regardless of how late. And rather unsurprisingly at this somewhat delayed arrival, there wasn’t much left of John Vanderslice to vander see. At just past 10pm, a full hour and half past schedule for a 40-minute drive, there was no sign of the man. Instead, after a ridiculous amount of instrument tinkering and general dawdling, the audience was treated to a musically accomplished but generally bland, repetitive, lingering set by Short Stack, whose two guitarists (one slide, both seated), bass player (a d-e-a-d ringer for the Son of Sam), and drummer (. . . he was good . . .) would’ve sounded most at home as the bar band in a background scene of Blue Velvet. Or maybe


Thelma and Louise. Somewhere else, essentially.


Somewhere else where Clem Snide, who slinked on to the stage soon after, probably wouldn’t quite fit in. Lanky, in full dress suits with inappropriate shoes, the boys assumed position, lead Snide Eef Barzelay flaunting his uber-geek Buddy Holly black-rimmed glasses and grizzly stubble, the bass player with his fly completely gaping. These tiny imperfections were mere accessories, it seemed, worn for extra ironic effect—how could something this square looking sound so good? And so square? As if to refute any sort of nerd-bashing from the spread-out, token drunks in the crowd, Barzelay and banjolinist (what else do you call a guy who plays a banjo with a bow?) Pete Fitzpatrick quickly launched the band into a spirited, gritty verse of “War Pigs”, Barzelay’s Nashville-by-way-of-Jersey nasal twang stretched to full capacity. It was one of several moments of sheer, noisy contradiction for a band whose songs generally consist of alt-country stomps and gentle folk balladry. But on this night, along with the Ozzy posturing, the Snide arsenal also included a verse of what Bleach-era Nirvana might’ve sounded like covering The Velvet’s “I’m Waiting for My Man”, and a song about a guy with asthma.


But aside from the small, unexpected surprises, the rest of the show was mostly as expected: a solid sampling of songs from the band’s latest, and most complete CD, The Ghost of Fashion. Eyes squinty and pleasantly babbling (could he have been stoned? A rock star?!?), Barzelay offered some background info on already likeable songs, making them imminently more so. “Moment in the Sun”, the mildly hokey, Phish-esque mid-tempo theme from NBC’s Ed, was explained to be the end result of Barzelay entering the head of and writing from the mindset of Jewel. Terrifying, but what was once hokey becomes hi-larious. And the awkward high school lust of “Joan Jett of Arc” (which contains, incidentally, the line with possibly the best pun to word ratio ever in recorded music: “Her black heart was heavy, but her mom’s cougar was fast / As little pink houses, were swimming / And it was all you could eat at the Sizzler that night / My steak burning Joan Jett of Arc.”), is actually about . . . getting laid for the first time in high school in Jersey. Touching. Poignant. Silly. Fabulous.


For the most part, the rest of the show was equally fabulous. “Let’s Explode”, and “Long Lost Twin”, the opening pair from Fashion were note-for-note perfect, and the brief detours through the band’s 2000 album, Your Favorite Music, were just as worthy. “African Friend” (dedicated “to all the white people in the audience”), “I Love the Unknown” (a true story), and first set closer “Messiah Complex Blues” (Barzelay to Fitzpatrick: “Take it, Beeaatch!”) were, if anything, a little slowed down, but no less worthy.


Only on the slower number did Clem Snide lose steam, if even then. “Chinese Baby” (quoth the obnoxious girl in front to her friend: “Is this like a Dave Matthews slow jam?”) was even more trance-like in person, Barzelay’s deliciously flat voice floating over his smooth finger picking, the other instruments almost unnoticeable, nearly unnecessary.


Unfortunately, there weren’t many folks around to enjoy in the festivities. You might attribute the diminished crowd to any number of things: a wicked, wicked cold night; the fact that it was a Monday night; and, as with most band one may or may not designate ‘indie’, the fan base of the Snide can’t be all that large. Critics and faithful be damned. Screw you, high-rated NBC show theme song.


But no matter who wasn’t there, those who were in attendance were treated to a stellar performance. Wry lyrics, simple, classic arrangements, smooth melodies, and songs to get lost in. Or lost en route to. Maybe not the best show ever, but definitely just what I was looking for.

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