or every good giver there’s a good receiver,” intoned the lanky frontman from beneath a shag-carpet of brown hair. Speaking to no one in particular, his hands gesticulating abstractly, he concluded, “know what I mean?” For anyone familiar with the consistently changing sonic palette of tonight’s headliners such an inquiry can be answered affirmatively. Ever since their conception a decade ago, the Lilys have shifted lineups and sounds with agility bordering on mania. Fixed solely by their axial pivot—maestro/crooner/guitarist Kurt Heasley—the “band” mutates perennially like some accelerated, indefatigable bacteria. Wrongly accused by some of purloining or, even worse, forging from the gilded halls of rock ‘n roll—from the Kinks all the way up to My Bloody Valentine—this fluctuating community of musicians under Heasley’s baton has yet to receive its due. They deserve their just receivers.
Performing tonight with no new release to support (three years since their last album and two since an EP) and no insurgence to capitalize on, the Lilys emerge triumphantly staid. Heasley center stage, roughly a thousand feet taller than anyone else, and clad in unapologetic paisley commands his most recent configuration of instrumentalists with his usual stoned swagger. Handling drums and main keyboards are two stalwarts of the last couple of personnel arrangements: Aaron Sperske and David Scher, respectively, from C&W-pharmacists and one-time Heasley backing-band the Beachwood Sparks. A sizably side-burned guitarist and bespectacled blond bassist round out the string section. In addition Heasley has accreted an extra synth-straddler and even a programmer who looms in the back, mostly crouched and unseen, supplying supplementary beats and squiggles with headphones permanently pressed against one ear.
Before a small, square screen aglow in trembling, digital colors and textures, the seven figures crowded onstage began with a closer: the recurring, lysergic coda of “The Gravity-Free Atmosphere of MSA”, the last movement in Heasley’s “blues opera” Services (For The Soon To Be Departed from 1997. Void of vocals except for two mumbled murmurs, the entrancing, five-note thrum slowly morphed from a leathery, skeletal lullaby recalling the Velvets at their Warholian depth into the chiming, lucent riff of “Returns Every Morning”, another finale, this one from 1996’s seminal Better Can’t Make Your Life Better. The spiraling timbres of the first song gradually became brighter, each plucked string softly shaking off its dimness. Heasley abruptly cut off this prolonged innuendo by suddenly playing the melody in its regular, less limber tempo. The band soon assumed the speedier pace and, in mere moments, the room filled with the finest, rollicking jangle this side of Mersey.
Thumbing through his voluminous songbook, Heasley never shied away from obscure material. Both sides of 1996’s out-of-print Which Studies the Past 7-inch were aired tonight with mastery betraying their age. The fragmented, British Invasion stomp of “Welfare Murder Plot” climaxed with Heasley, his legs fixed as if frozen, fervently pounding a massive white tambourine with the possessed, febrile shudders of a preacher. The flipside, “Baby’s A Dealer” bobbed and popped with a fuzzy, splintered riff. “Touch the Water”, an early composition first recorded by Heasley’s comrade, and former roommate, Robert Schneider with the Apples in Stereos, was as electric and undeniable as white light.
The Lilys’ two “hits” - “Ginger” from 1994’s A Brief History of Amazing Letdowns featured in a Calvin Klein ad and “A Nanny In Manhattan” from Better Can’t Make Your Life Better used on a Levi’s television spot—were both proudly aired in defiance of possible naysayers. The former was a brilliant shamble, breaking down halfway through into a skiffle churn; the latter an assured, congealed slice of perfect pop confection. The highlight, though, was a rare performance of the bittersweet “And One (On One)” Heasley’s thinly veiled paean to cocaine from the group’s only major-label album, 1999’s The 3-Way. Taking a consolatory seat beside Scher, Heasley then led the group in what appeared to be an improvised, drone-based groove. Strumming a single chord, his face entirely obscured by an impenetrable fringe, Heasley appeared neither bored nor lost but merely steady. The sextet promptly joined in, propelling a Krautrock pulse that echoed 1999’s Zero Population Growth. Lastly, a raucous reading of “Shovel Into Spade Kit” crackled and swooned like a great, lost Ray Davies 45.
After much backstage deliberation only Heasley and Sperske returned for a stripped-down version of “Who Is Moving?” with the singer on a 12-string electric guitar and the drummer accompanying on tambourine. Rather than the scorching, mod backbeat on record, the song was reformed as a strangely jazzy ditty somewhere between Bleecker St. bohemia and campfire sing-along. Not exactly a best-of set nor a trial run of nascent material, tonight the Lilys seemed merely to be rehearsing for their moment (we can predict this may come soon at Terrastock V in October). That is, rather than give us some likeness of significance past or an entirely new work they just dipped here and there in their exceptional history with an enviable ease. Whether we deserve it or not, they remain great givers.