PopMatters Music Columns Editor
The last time the Gravel Pit made any noise was when they issued a question to those still listening, one lodged in a teeth-loosening riff that suggested Thin Lizzy had found the Attractions’ stash of uppers: “Do you think we oughta stick around / Or blow this town?”
When the band originally delivered the query on their 2001 Mass Avenue Freeze-Out album, they obviously had an answer in mind. The next four years saw an indefinite hiatus: lead singer Jed Parish moved to Brooklyn, pursuing his solo career and the low-key virtues of a sideman while bassist Ed Valauskas, guitarist Lucky Jackson, and drummer Pete Caldes formed the Gentlemen with the Figgs’ Mike Gent. Like fellow Bostoners Buffalo Tom and the Sheila Divine, the Gravel Pit reeled at the cusp of something bigger than itself, but never attained the massive presence it deserved.
But some conclusions aren’t convinced of their own finality. Sometimes, we needn’t be deprived of good things. Everyone’s favorite New Haven-born Boston band returned to everyone’s favorite Cambridge rock-club-above-a-rock-club for one of three “reunion” shows (rumors of a new album are also being whispered).
Tiny Cambridge rock hangout T.T. the Bear’s hosted the band’s return to the town that nearly made it famous. I arrived late enough to catch only the last of the three opening bands, The Downbeat 5, as they lit up some X-ish rockabilly and danced around the metaphoric flame.
When the Pit took the stage shortly after midnight they looked a bit different (no more pressed suits and Parish’s blossoming muttonchops are going gray). Musically though, they picked up right where they left off: Jackson, sporting the skinny black tie, converted his low-slung Les Paul into a calisthenics tool; Valauskas prodded the band to become a Motown reincarnation of Cheap Trick with restless bass lines that recall his knowledge of a library of soul fakebooks; and Caldes flaunted tasty fills amid the metronome-tight whiplash of his drumming.
Most of Parish’s exertions seem effortless: he intermittently fondled his hip-side Farfisa, injecting some B-movie dread into the songs’ roar. At other times, the maracas or cowbell proved simple but effective tools in dousing the rhythm section’s aggressive grooves with some salt. It took his contortionist’s vocal cords a few songs to stretch, but once they did, Parish charmed his tongue to tumble thrillingly through “The Ballad of the Gravel Pit”, “Baby Gap”, and “Bolt of Light”.
Though more grizzled, statesmanlike, and exquisitely jaded, this was undoubtedly the same band that used to upstage headlining acts with their wrecking-ball take on new wave-infected demolition rock. The Pit approached the night as did others in the past, taking the stage with zero fanfare and making only the slightest reference to their four year absence. They built it up slow, starting off with gestating nuggets like “Get Tangled!” before erupting into rash-ridden power pop with incendiary renditions of “Where the Flying Things Go” and “Unit Three”.
In between scalding songs like “The Mosquito” and almost-hit “Favorite”, the band cultivated subtler menaces with “Time to Leave the Cradle” and “When Will Our Bucket Come up Dry” - these were brief respites where, while teeth were bared, blood was not shed. The audience responded in a sustained, infectious fervor that saluted both the music and the night’s celebratory vibe. So even when the Pit dug deep into its back catalog, firing off a cathartic “Fainting” from 1994’s Crash Land, hoarse throats hollered as if it were the group’s greatest hit.
The night’s highlights were two of Silver Gorilla‘s story-songs, “The Ballad of Ezra Messenger” and “The Rise of Abimelech Dumont”, the latter ending with a chest-thumping, valley-resonating cry: “Who the hell do you think this town belongs to?” This time, this night, the questions seemed to be issued with a renewed confidence. The hometown crowd, amped on plastic cups of draft beer and hoping for a renaissance of sentimentality-free nostalgia, gave its answer with an encore-producing round of thunderous applause: Gravel Pit, the town can be yours again, but this time, you better stick around.