Peterborough, New Hampshire is best known as the setting for Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Even now, in the early 2000s, it’s the sort of idyllic white-picketed place where Emily’s “Oh, earth you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you ...” speech still makes some sense. It is not a typical stop on a rock tour, so when I saw a poster in a local record store promoting a Saturday night show by the Evens at a place called “the Glass Factory,” I did a double take. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.
The Glass Factory, it turns out, doesn’t really exist in the four-walls-and-a-roof sense. It’s more of an experiment based around the idea that if you can persuade a band like Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina’s the Evens to play in your town, space will be found, somehow, somewhere. On this particular evening, the Glass Factory has taken residence in an Episcopal Church’s meeting hall—a place with gleaming wood floors, high, beamed ceilings, and chairs pushed to the walls on three sides of the building. A mixed crowd filters in: one teenager in a mohawk, a dad with two pre-teen daughters, a middle-school kid in a Clash tee-shirt, most of the staff of the local used-record shop, a bunch of college-age kids, and one lady who appears to have become sidetracked while walking her dog. The dog is very quiet and no trouble at all. It’s that sort of show.
When MacKaye saunters in, followed by Farina, the pair take their positions—MacKaye on a folding chair, Farina behind the kits—and peer out at the crowd. We are all sitting in the chairs around the edge of the room, dozens of yards from the stage. “I know you’re all comfortable in those chairs,” MacKaye says in his gentle, favorite-science-teacher voice. “But why don’t we make it a show? Come sit on the floor. If you can’t sit on the floor, bring a chair, but come up here.”
And so we do, most of us cross-legged on the floor. Our new positions immediately shift the dynamic of the evening. You cannot, for instance, cross your arms very well when sitting Indian-style, because you will eventually tip over. You cannot hang back and look ironic.
It becomes apparent that MacKaye is just as surprised to be in New Hampshire—and almost as happy about it—as we are. Cursed by proximity to Boston (and, to a lesser extent, Northampton), New Hampshire has almost no live-music venues. Even the college towns are bereft of decent spaces. (I once saw the Allman Brothers when I was at Dartmouth, but you’ve never experienced anything as surreal as “Whipping Post” performed in a hockey arena.) In his Fugazi days, MacKaye and his band made an effort to play in every state of the Union, and New Hampshire was the last one to cross off the list. MacKaye tells us he’d been looking for a New Hampshire show for a month and a half before someone had put him onto the people at the Glass Factory. “I blame it on G.G. Allin.”
With that MacKaye, hunched over electric guitar, and Farina, seated behind a red drum set, begin their set with “On the Face of It,” from their first album. It is, like most of their work, an interesting blend of sparse acoustic strumming and agitated rock. MacKaye is seated, but barely, bouncing up and down on the chair, leaning far forward and then way back. It is a sort of contained frenzy. If it was physically possible to jump off an amp while remaining seated, you get the sense that he might. Farina, by contrast, seems quietly absorbed in the music, her eyes closed much of the time, her arms moving restlessly over the toms before lifting in a resounding double-snare thwack. It creates a fascinating chemistry, and you realize right away that, despite the unbalanced ways many other male/female, guitar/drum duos divide up the work, the Evens mete out responsibilities, well, evenly.
They pause after the first song, and MacKaye announces that the next one, “You Won’t Feel a Thing,” will contain what he calls “an epic sing-along fadeout chorus.” The idea of a fadeout chorus, he says, is that the song might go on forever, somewhere off mic after the tape recorders have been turned off. He wants the audience to pick up the final chorus as he and Amy fade out, then, as the audience fades out, he would like us to imagine people in the neighboring houses picking up the melody… and on and on and on in a chorus that never really ends. It is a bit silly, but it’s supposed to create a sense of boundless community. We sing along, pretty much all of us, toward the end, trying with difficulty to hold the notes at lower and lower volumes, and when it ends, there really is a feeling that the song isn’t really over, that it’s hanging somewhere just out of reach.
Farina takes the lead on the next song, “If It’s Water,” her voice far more muscular and soulful than I expect. Indeed, throughout the evening what seemed delicate and pristine on the record turns fractious and empowered. Farina’s voice is a wonderful thing, and there are a couple of times during the evening when she seems to halt a song dead in the middle with unearthly held notes.
There are a number of songs from the band’s second album, Get Evens, including “Dinner with the President,” “Cache is Empty,” and “Pushed Against the Wall.” These seem a bit more full-blooded and rocking than material from the first album. Throughout the evening, as you’d expect if you know the players well, there’s also a strong political bent leavened with a certain amount of self-effacing humor. At one point, MacKaye gets into a long explanation of “Dinner with the President,” saying that it’s really about the idea of winning an award, in this case dinner with the president, and how the value of any award depends on what you think of the institution that gives it. “For instance, if the NFL gave me an award, I probably wouldn’t think much of it… because I don’t play football.” Farina rolls her eyes (fondly, it seems) and says, “No, you’d be psyched.” MacKaye gets a big grin on his face and says, “Oh, yeah, I probably would.”
A rollicking version of “Mt. Pleasant Isn’t” calls for another sing-along. We’re all coaxed into it (“The police will not be excused/The police will not behave”) and apparently do so well that we win another few tunes, including self-titled album highlights “Nobody Home,” “Blessed Not Lucky” and, after a quick shift in mic’ing and the shutting off of a noisy fan (the machine kind, not the human kind), the trippy/dubby “Minding One’s Business.”
By then it’s ten o’clock on a warm New England evening, the fireflies are out, and the smell of peonies drifts through an open window. How strange was it to sit in front of Ian MacKaye, one of post-punk’s forefathers, on the floor of an Episcopalian church with kids and a dog in the audience? Pretty strange… but pretty good, too.